MU Experts - Online Privacy

Should governments have the right to access encrypted messages from platforms such as WhatsApp?

Can government access to our online content and personal devices safeguard us against future terrorist activity? Or is it likely to cause more harm than good? Researcher at the Department of New Media Technology at MODUL University Vienna, Daniel Fischl says we should "pause for a moment and think about this critically"

"Recent developments all over the world have sparked the discussion in politics about the necessity of granting government access to encrypted message services. The question of privacy vs security is a delicate one and comes down to the questions of: How much privacy should each individual sacrifice in order to increase public security?

A buzz word which e.g. the government of the US is using quite often recently is “national security”. A term that is used to justify any cut into the privacy of people, like the rights to read all private messages, collection of metadata, location tracking, call interception, and so on. But instead of just agreeing and saying 'yes, of course, if it will guarantee my security' we should pause for a moment and think about this critically. Is it necessary to grant government access to private messages to achieve the goal of security? Will it actually help them to identify threats before they happen? The opinions on this vary greatly. Some people say this demand for reasons of “national security” is only an excuse for governments to have a legal way of collecting more personal data and will not help fighting terrorism at all, others argue it will drastically help in preventing crimes and possible threats.

From a technical point of view, companies like Apple which were recently urged to provide so called 'backdoors' for governments to make it possible for them to access this data are concerned as well. Not only because they 'believe security shouldn't come at the expense of individual privacy', but also for the reason of a possible misuse of this 'backdoor'. The company itself could not guarantee that this access might not be exploited by someone else as well, thus implementing such an alternative way to access phones, etc. would 'undermine the protections' they've built in.

I believe in the fact, that privacy is a fundamental human right and this right shouldn't be able to be bypassed for any reason at all and by no one at all. We're already giving away so much data, be it voluntarily, through the use of various social media channels, or involuntarily, e.g. through tracking of browser cookies from our daily use of the World Wide Web. We don't even know for certain if this course of action would actually prevent certain catastrophes from happening or not. Different studies on data collection and crime prevention yield contradictory results and recommendations, depending on the party publishing them. For all we know, terrorist organizations would just switch to other channels of communications (assuming they are using the standard communication platforms in the first place). Let's assume all this data would be collected. Who could process the vast amount of messages and phone calls collected from millions of people? And even if the data would give hints that a person is potentially dangerous – consider the tragedy caused by Anis Amri in Berlin last year - the police were already observing him, but the resources just weren't enough to prevent this tragic event from happening. So the bottom line in my opinion is that it's not clear at all, but the one thing we know for certain is that once we follow this road, there's no way back, and all data that's there is there forever."