Home Office to spearhead anti-encryption public comms campaign

Report claims efforts led by advertising firm will aim to stoke concern among parents and could feature public stunts designed to alarm passers-by 

Credit: Yuri Samoilov/CC BY 2.0

The Home Office has retained a major advertising company to deliver a public communications campaign that will reportedly aim to stoke public sentiment in opposition to encryption technology.

Successive home secretaries have frequently voiced strong opposition to the concept of encryption on the grounds that it helps criminals; the incumbent minister, Priti Patel, has called on tech firms to include in their systems so-called back doors that would allow authorities to, effectively, access encrypted messages on demand. A fact sheet published by the Home Office in late 2019, meanwhile, conspicuously failed to rule out the proposal of anti-encryption legislation, although indicated that reaching a mutually satisfactory accord with Facebook and other tech firms was the government’s “preferred solution”.

Two years on, and absent any such agreement, the department is shortly to launch a public messaging initiative designed to turn the tide of public opinion against encryption. The campaign will focus heavily on what the government believes are the implications for child safety if the use of the security technology is expanded.

A report from Rolling Stone claims that M&C Saatchi has been awarded the contract to fulfil a campaign which could, according proposals understood to have been created by the advertising agency, include dramatic public stunts and efforts to encourage concerned parents to write directly to Mark Zuckerberg and other tech executives.

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The Home Office will launch the campaign later this month and, according to Rolling Stone, a presentation from M&C Saatchi’s proposed that this be accompanied by the unveiling of a large digital counter in a public place which, over the course of 24 hours, would count up to 14 million – a figure the department claims is the number of instances of online exploitation that could take place outside the view of authorities each day, if technology companies expand their use of end-to-end encryption.

The most eye-catching proposal contained in the presentation is reported to involve the installation in a public place of a large clear box containing an adult and a child, sitting at opposite ends and each using a smartphone.

“The adult occasionally looks over at the child, knowingly,” the proposal is reported to say. “Intermittently through the day, the ‘privacy glass’ will turn on and the previously transparent glass box will become opaque. Passers by won’t be able to see what’s happening inside. In other words, we create a sense of unease by hiding what the child and adult are doing online when their interaction can’t be seen.”

The presentation notes that, currenrlt, many people do not really understand what end-to-end encryption is – meaning it would be easier to sway their opinion of it. Other proposed activities include encouraging Facebook users to publish status updates directly addressing the social network and its founder and opposing plans to extend the use of encryption.

Facebook-owned WhatsApp is the most high-profile of many messaging apps to feature automatic end-to-end encryption; the security feature is also available on the tech giant’s other messaging tools – including those on Instagram and Facebook itself. It is not currently enabled by default and government is strongly opposed to plans to make it so.

The upcoming campaign to voice this opposition aims to bring together charities and law-enforcement agencies to support the Home Office.

“We have engaged M&C Saatchi to bring together the many organisations who share our concerns about the impact end-to-end encryption would have on our ability to keep children safe,” a Home Office spokesperson said in a statement issued to Rolling Stone.

‘Forthright and technically wrong’
Ministers’ long-standing opposition to encryption has generated some sharp criticism from a range of figures, including tech industry experts and former senior representatives of the intelligence and security services.

Robin Wilton, director of internet trust at the Internet Society, told Rolling Stone: “The Home Office’s scaremongering campaign is as disingenuous as it is dangerous. Without strong encryption, children are more vulnerable online than ever. Encryption protects personal safety and national security … what the government is proposing puts everyone at risk.”

Ciaran Martin, the founding chief executive of the GCHQ-based National Cyber Security Centre, has previously voiced concern and scepticism about government’s rhetoric on encryption and its proposals for means of access, which he indicated in a speech given in November could “weaken privacy and cybersecurity, possibly catastrophically”.

Martin, who ended a 23-year civil-service career in 2020 and now works for the Blavatnik School of Government, added that ministers’ “tone is often forthright and technically wrong” when discussing encryption.

The former security chief said he found it “highly inappropriate and deeply offensive to portray those on that side of the [other side of the] argument as being unconcerned about the horrors of online child sex abuse”.

He added: “The government is, in effect, demanding that the tech industry does something to keep access open – at the same time, of course, as demanding the highest possible levels of cybersecurity. The industry, backed by most of the relevant expertise, is saying that what the government is demanding is simply not possible. Some experts say, in effect, that the government is arguing not against a policy decision, but against mathematics. The government’s response is simply to assert that: ‘no, you are wrong, it is possible, and you should go away and do it’.

“Surely though, the onus is on the government, not the industry, to set out clearly and transparently how they believe these two seemingly irreconcilable objectives can be met in the same regulatory package?”

Headquartered in London, M&C Saatchi has offices in 25 countries around the world and operates via about 30 separate agencies and business units. It claims to be the “biggest independent creative agency group in the world”, and posted global revenues of £323.25m in its most recently concluded financial year.


Sam Trendall

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