The UK Has A Voyeuristic New Propaganda Campaign Against Encryption

from the how-dare-people-have-walls dept

Over the weekend, Rolling Stone reported on a new propaganda campaign the United Kingdom’s government is rolling out to try to turn public opinion against end-to-end encryption (E2EE). It’s the latest salvo in the UK’s decades-long war against encryption, which in the past has relied on censorious statements from the Home Office and legislation such as the Snooper’s Charter rather than ad campaigns. According to the report, the plans for the PR blitz (which is funded by UK taxpayers’ money) include “a striking stunt — placing an adult and child (both actors) in a glass box, with the adult looking ‘knowingly’ at the child as the glass fades to black.”

This stunt, devised by ad agency M&C Saatchi, is remarkably similar to one of Leopold Bloom’s advertising ideas in James Joyce’s Ulysses: “…a transparent show cart with two smart girls sitting inside writing letters, copybooks, envelopes, blotting paper. I bet that would have caught on. Everyone dying to see what she’s writing. … Curiosity.” (U154) 

A century ago, Bloom the ad man cannily intuited how to achieve an agenda by manipulating humans’ nosy nature. And now the UK government — possibly the nosiest humans on earth — is betting it can do the same.

The evil genius of this bit of propaganda is that it works on two levels. The link between them turns on the symbolism that, as my Stanford Internet Observatory colleague David Thiel observed, an opaque box with people inside is what’s otherwise known as “a house.”

On one level, the opaque room represents encrypted messaging. The audience’s inability to see what happens inside is meant to provoke sympathy for the child, who, it’s leeringly implied, is about to be victimized by the adult. This is supposed to turn the audience’s opinion against encryption: Wouldn’t it be better if someone could see in?

But focusing on this shallow symbolism ignores what’s right there on the surface. On a different level, the opaque room isn’t a metaphor at all. It is just what it seems to be: an opaque room — that is, a house. 

A home. 

The audience isn’t meant to sympathize with the people inside the home, people just like them, who can shield themselves from prying eyes. Rather, they’re meant to sympathize with the would-be watcher: the UK government. On this level, it’s the frustrated voyeurs who are the victims. Their desire to watch what happens inside has been stymied by that demonic technology known as “walls.” Wouldn’t it be better if someone could see in?

To be sure, the glass room is, as it seems, an unsubtle allegory meant to gain public support for banning encryption, which allows people to have private spaces in the virtual world. E2EE protects children’s and adults’ communications alike, and by focusing on adult/child interactions, this stunt hides the fact that removing E2EE for children’s conversations necessarily means removing it for adults’ conversations too. So on one level, it’s normalizing the idea that adults aren’t entitled to have private conversations online. 

But the campaign’s more insidious message is literally hiding in plain sight. By portraying the transparent room as desirable and the opaque room as a sinister deviation from the norm, the government is peddling the idea that it is suspect for people to have our own private spaces in the physical world.

The goal of this propaganda campaign is to turn the UK public’s opinion against their own privacy, not just in their electronic conversations, but even in the home, where the right to privacy is strongest and most ancient. Were the Home Office to say that overtly, many people would immediately reject it as outrageous, and rightly so. But through this campaign, the UK government can get its citizens to come up with that idea all on their own. The hook for this hard-to-swallow notion is the more readily-accepted premise that children should have less privacy and be under more surveillance than adults. But if it’s adults who harm children, then the conclusion follows naturally: adults had better be watched as well. Even inside their own homes. 

This isn’t a new idea; it’s a longstanding fantasy of the British government, given voice over the centuries by authors from Bentham to Orwell. Heck, general warrants were one of the causes of the American Revolution against the British government. But the new twist of hiring an ad agency to sell people their own subjugation, using their own tax money, is just insulting. Here’s hoping the Home Office’s anti-privacy ulterior motive will be like that glass box: people will see right through it.

Riana Pfefferkorn is a Research Scholar at the Stanford Internet Observatory.

Filed Under: , , , , , , ,
Companies: m&c saatchi

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “The UK Has A Voyeuristic New Propaganda Campaign Against Encryption”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Nationalistic slurs

"…the UK government — possibly the nosiest humans on earth …"

Possibly? This slur that has no basis, no support, and in no way helps the story certainly isn’t worthy of TD.

The war against end to end encryption didn’t start with the "possibly nosiest UK government" people, and it won’t end there.


This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Nationalistic slurs

I never understood calling the guy peeking over my fence "nosy" was a slur, rather than an appropriate adjective. Does that make my mother a jingoist?

I’d also note that you are claiming there is no basis for calling the UK government
the ‘nosiest’, in the same article that reminds us the government is trying to pass legislation nicknamed the "snooper’s charter", nicknamed such because of the broad powers it grants to law enforcement and the government to be nosy on nothing more than a whim. To claim the UK government as the "nosiest" is a subjective and hyperbolic opinion, rather than objective fact, but to claim the author has no basis to hold that opinion is an outright lie.

Jordan says:


The only way to create a back door for the government is to make encryption with inherent design flaws and thus making it useless. They cannot force people to develop flaws in their encryption. Who would even use encryption that they know the government has the keys to?

Also why should the government be allowed to read our mail?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Problems

They cannot force people to develop flaws in their encryption. Who would even use encryption that they know the government has the keys to?

Now, if you are talking about the US government, there is precedent directly on point. The US government is not in the least shy about invoking National Security, requiring lawyers with clearances for classified information, short deadlines and so on to ensure the defendant is not able to fairly contest the subpoena.

Also why should the government be allowed to read our mail?

"Should" and "will" are vastly different things. As above, the government will make any excuse it thinks it can get away with. And if it can’t make a good excuse, it’ll ask forgiveness afterwards.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

There is an example I can give of what the police think is "knowingly".

So, many years ago, I was walking down the street. I received a phone call from a mate to ask if we were still on for drinks later (naturally, a yes).

A man comes up to me a few seconds later asking for a lighter (as a smoker holding a cigarette, it would have been hard to say no).

As he lights his rolly, we had a few words of small talk.

I leave.

20 seconds later, a plain clothes officee accosts me and says I need to submit to a search. When I ask why, he says "I saw that person make a call, and you pick up and hang up at the same time. He then approached you, you handed him something, he handed something back. I KNOW it was a drug deal, so I’m going to search you, or we can take this to the station".

I protested, and he did just that. After several hours in police custody, and nothing found, a different officer interviews me for over an hour about what they KNOW happened, but never did.

Please remind me, whats "knowingly" again?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Devonavar says:

Metaphor fail

Maybe I’m missing something because I’m reading about the propaganda rather than seeing it, but my first assumption was that the communication was between parent and child. Which kind of seems like it backfires to me.

Because I can’t think of a better example of things that should be kept private and sacred than a parent-child relationship. If the suggestion is that big brother should be watching all our parents, that gets a big hell-no from me, and, I would think, from most parents.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

"by focusing on adult/child interactions, this stunt hides the fact that removing E2EE for children’s conversations necessarily means removing it for adults’ conversations too"

Or indeed, that it’s just fine for the "right" adults to be able to snoop in on children’s private conversations. Like, say, looking at any nude selfies teenagers might be sharing. You know, for their "safety".

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

I actually side with the government and child protection charities on this one.

If people have done nothing wrong, they’ve got nothing to hide from the authorities or the government.

Though it doesn’t go far enough.

Know somebody who supports the use of encryption? Report them for a reward.
Know somebody who uses encryption? Report them for a reward.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

If people have done nothing wrong, they’ve got nothing to hide from the authorities or the government.

In the early stages of trying to form a new political party, which is a legal activity, or arrange a protest over some topic, and you have good reason for keeping things hidden from the government.

The problem with not having any privacy is that you can agree with who is in power, or at least appear to, or be sent to an education camp or worse to correct you wrong thoughts.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: What do you have to hide?

…they’ve got nothing to hide…

Please provide your SSN, full address, DOB, bank account #s, and PINs.

If you have nothing to hide from the authorities (wtf is that) or the government, you should be happy to do so. Chop chop. Do it.

You are WELCOME to give away your rights and give your private information away. You are strongly dissuaded from trying to give mine away. That’s the difference between Pussy and Citizen.

Give away what you will. Don’t come near me, family, friends, or rights. Nobody who values their rights will value your life when you attempt to remove those rights.


This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
cattress (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Criminals aren’t the only people who use encryption. In fact, encryption is a necessary tool for victims and oppressed people to communicate with each other and outsiders in order to organize and get help.
You want to organize against police violence, you need encryption. You want to fight for legalization of weed or other drugs, better keep it encrypted. Don’t like the current leader or political power? How about ordinary Palestinians whose homes are being seized by settlers or destroyed just because Israel didn’t give them a permit. Drug cartels that are thick with law enforcement in South America, people who want to escape.
Do you have your head up your own ass?
First, kids falling victim to sex trafficking is not as common as, I think some people actually fantasize. And none of this spying will prevent anything. What will protect kids: secure stable homes – financial instability is the number one predictor of violence. Human right protections that are just as strong as adults, including privacy rights, the right not to seek safety and shelter away from parents or guardians- since they hurt kids the most- even if they are technically a run away or truant they shouldn’t be under threat of incarceration. Parents should also be able to do the safe haven thing no matter how old the child and we really need to destigmatize placing children for adoption, it’s never the easy choice.
Kids and teens need privacy, and they need to feel trusted and secure and that even if they made mistakes and misbehaved, and lied, and broke the rules and some how get caught up in a situation over their head or they want to stop, or think is their fault, that no matter what they are loved, and and that as a parent, guardian, trusted adult, we are going to fight tooth and nail to protect them and that we aren’t mad at them, and even if we are we are going to get right over it, and we empower them to have their voice and to get whatever they need to feel safe and secure and with dignity and some level of control- because telling a kid you’re putting them in foster care and someone they might care about is going to prison might not be the best solution to them.
And again, is your head still up your ass? Because when it’s not the parents, trusted close adults that hurt kids, it’s the fucking cops and child welfare like churches that run orphanages. The only people who should be subjected to the if you didn’t do anything you shouldn’t mind if we look around are precisely the scumbag cops and monied religious organizations.

SomeSemiAnonymousPerson says:

Re: Re: Re:

And in the UK, it is already a requirement that schools spy on children, in the name of "safeguarding". While this may seem reasonable at first glance, you should have a read of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, specifically Article 12 ("No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the ​protection of the law against such interference or attacks.") Now, the implementation of this surveillance system has led to me butting heads with my School multiple times, and their implementation has potential to spill over onto a device the student actually owns and can be difficult to remove (although it is possible with root access or similar to the device in question). I have also personally decided that I will not trust their safeguarding department with anything – and will go so far as to refuse to cooperate unless somebody is at risk of severe harm or there is imminent danger. I would get out more, but I rather like my families’ opaque box with walls.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

'Fear privacy! Down with walls! A camera in every window!'

Would be nice if someone were to return the favor with their own little mini-scenes.

A child is on the bed, texting or reading, and looking over their shoulder is a man in an official suit along with any number of others of questionable looks and demeanor.

A married(or not) couple is having a conversation in their bedroom, and sitting just off to the side is a man in a suit taking notes as other strangers are scattered around the room listening in.

A support group is getting together to talk about their problems and just a few feet away cameras are rolling as a few men in suits record the whole thing while strangers engage in a running commentary about what’s being said.

If they want to demonize privacy then it’s only fair to show people what that outcome results in, with the government and anyone else who cares to able to peek into the lives of anyone they want whenever they want because once you cripple the encryption that keeps everyone safe anyone can make use of the vulnerability that’s been created, not just the government that pinky-promises they’ll be super-duper responsible with their new power.

ECA (profile) says:


Wow, and no one thinks the real crooks will find a way around this?
Lets just go back to letters, Direct communication? A REAL PHONE on the wall that had Protections, and can be scrambled?
How about Standard ham radio, which has Tons more options then your phone, for encryption.
Between ham radio, Citizens band, CB radio, SW, MW, LW and all the rest. IT dont even have to be legal, we can do direct signals with low power Microwave. Very little chance of interception.
Got a computer?? do anything you want on a Client based chat(no servers) or they are going to pay allot of money to TRY to track anyone.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

"The audience’s inability to see what happens inside is meant to provoke sympathy for the child, who, it’s leeringly implied, is about to be victimized by the adult."

If they are disturbed by the ad… wait until they find out how many actual pedophiles have been protected by their courts, media, legal system.
This should ring as hollow as the church claiming to support the victims of abuse by priests.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
cattress (profile) says:

A follow up to the stunt

How about after this dark scene implying a child is abused, a follow up ad that shows the same child in a glass box with a crisis line operator, someone who appears to be a doctor or psychiatrist, and then we see that same leering adult standing outside the box intimidatingly. The kid opens their mouth to say something but changes their mind and leaves

Or maybe an alternative ad. A couple of teens holding hands, smile knowingly at the camera and shut the door, blocking the cameras view. Then you see the teens in the glass box, getting rather passionate, while a school principal, a couple cops and some parents are watching. Then you see later that the cops are sharing pics with each other, ogling and laughing, the principal sending an email to a school committee directing them to cut the girl, the female parent posting pics of the girl with the word slut written on them around the school while kids laugh and point, and the Dad is doing surveillance on the boys home while he strokes a shotgun.

BG (profile) says:

They should ask for a refund ...

… ‘cos that advert got things backwards. It’s showing us what life would be like without encryption … everyone’s personal life exposed for anyone to exploit and prey upon.

Otherwise I’m confused about the message they are trying to send. Pedos only operate in greenhouses, telephone booths and similar spaces? Children locked inside a small unventilated and sealed environment won’t suffocate? The UK government thinks taxpayers are idiots to be exploited at will?

It’s probably the last one.

Anonymous Coward says:

governments everywhere are going to extraordinary lengths to now do exactly what WWII was fought to stop, total surveillance of ordinary people just so the elite, the rich, the famous (and all their friends) knew when their shennanigans were about to be discovered and made public and those doing these ‘dastardly deeds’ could be identified, arrested and silenced for good! the whole aim of these surveillance tactics is to keep us enslaved and, if needs be, imprisoned. anyone who thought that Nazism was dead is in cloud cuckoo land! it just hid for a while, replenishing itself, ready to kick off again when those who are behind it, thought the time was right! guess what! that’s now!!

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...