The EARN IT Act Also Threatens Journalists And Their Sources

from the add-it-to-the-list dept

The EARN IT Act is dangerous. It threatens speech on the internet and tech companies' ability to provide secure communications for their users. There may not be anything about encryption in the dry text of the bill, but the threat is there all the same. No one knows what "best practices" the law will demand from online services, but the bill's focus on child porn strongly suggests any platform that "allows" this information to be transmitted using encrypted communications will be targeted by the government.

Bill Barr and Chris Wray have made it clear encryption is the enemy. Both have advocated for encryption backdoors, even if they're both too cowardly to use that term. No one thinks the government and service providers shouldn't do all they can to prevent the sharing of child porn, but undermining encryption isn't the solution. It may shield some child porn producers and consumers from detection, but the government's efforts in this area show encryption hasn't posed much of a problem to investigators and prosecutors.

Encryption protects people who aren't criminals. As Runa Sundvik explains for TechCrunch, targeting encryption via the EARN IT Act also threatens some of the foremost beneficiaries of the First Amendment: journalists.

[T]echnology experts warn the bill not only fails to meet the challenge, it creates new problems of its own. My job is to enable journalists to do their work securely — to communicate with others, research sensitive stories and publish hard-hitting news. This bill introduces significant harm to journalists’ ability to protect their sources.

Strip communications platforms of their encryption and you make it that much easier to expose journalists' sources and snoop on their communications. This isn't an existential threat. It's an actual threat. The FBI has spied on journalists and several successive presidential administrations have made rooting out leakers a priority.

But it does more than harm journalists. It also harms the people they're trying to reach: readers. Encryption protects readers who visit news sites utilizing HTTPS. That's almost all of them at this point. This ensures their connection is shielded from people trying to snoop on their web activity. More importantly, it ensures the sites they reach are legit and the content originating from the journalists the site says it is.

If EARN IT becomes law, whistleblowers and other sources will see their secure options disappear. Tor, Signal, etc. will be considered nothing more than aiders and abettors of criminal activity. Anything secured by encryption will be treated as a virtual dead drop for criminal content.

Protecting children from exploitation is important. But the tradeoff legislators are demanding isn't actually a tradeoff. The American public will receive no net benefit from this tangential attack on encryption. Very often we're first informed about serious government misconduct by journalists. Destroying this outlet works out well for the government so often exposed as untrustworthy, but it does nothing for the governed.

Filed Under: earn it, encryption, journalism


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  • icon
    Thad (profile), 8 May 2020 @ 9:14am

    This isn't an existential threat. It's an actual threat.

    I think you're using "existential" incorrectly. You seem to be using it like it means "hypothetical".

    But "existential threat" means a threat to something's existence.

    I'd argue this very much is an existential threat.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 8 May 2020 @ 9:46am

    'Well yeah, that's why we want it in place.'

    If EARN IT becomes law, whistleblowers and other sources will see their secure options disappear. Tor, Signal, etc. will be considered nothing more than aiders and abettors of criminal activity. Anything secured by encryption will be treated as a virtual dead drop for criminal content.

    Given how vehemently against whistleblowers the current and past administrations have been and continue to be I'm absolutely sure that would be considered a feature, not a bug, for a good number of those pushing the bill.

    Making it harder for those that would expose wrongdoing of those in power to do so strikes me as something that the government would absolutely love for obvious reasons.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 May 2020 @ 9:58am

    "Bill Barr and Chris Wray have made it clear encryption is the enemy."

    It's clear to me they consider the general public to be their enemy.
    Must be a guilty conscience .. if they had one.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Norahc (profile), 8 May 2020 @ 10:36am

    I'm sure the government views threatening whistleblowers and journalists as a bonus feature of the EARN-IT Act.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 May 2020 @ 11:37am

    The act will do nothing to protect children, as all it will do is drive abusive material deeper underground where it is harder to detect. No visible evidence of child abuse is not the same as no child abuse, and the more that evidence becomes hidden, the harder it is to detect child abuse and protect the children.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 8 May 2020 @ 12:16pm

    The numbers. For those that dont get it.

    Have all been counted.
    Have all been explained and examined.
    And all the data and Stuff thrown out there to be looked at has Fallen by the wayside.. In a pile of poop.
    Out of the numbers they have given, exaggerated, about 1% lead to someone into the sex trade or being held against their will.
    Even with that number, out of Runaways, and family problems and those that returned home, <1% had not been found.

    Insted of going out and finding the REAL Culprits. ANd the lost Children that were FORCED into the trade or into Child abduction. They threw a LARGE number of runaways..Found or not at us.

    In all of this was something Stupid, or not complete. The Aim was Only at the internet. NOT newspapers. Not any other form of communication.(and there are Phone scramblers for the Old landlines)

    To Unscramble the internet/cellphones is a Task I DONT think they want. Consider the ability of someone to TRACK your kid? his phone and his txt are UNSCRAMBLED.. You could search the Frequencies NEAR you and find any child you want.. DONT EVEN NEED A CELL TOWER.. you just turned every phone into a walkie-talkie. All I would need would be a receiver.(and thats NOT illegal, to listen, and NOT broadcast).

    This is as bad as walking into a dark alley(that the COPS watch from outside to see who is going in/out) And shining a flash light. You can NOW see, only for a few seconds, WHO is WHO and what is happening...AS they all run away and find a better location. (and now the cops have to FIND those persons AGAIN)

    The only thing this will lead to, is MORE hiding, DEEP hiding..Alternative ways to communicate, MORE privacy in something THEY/WE THINK is happening... And we WONT find it. About as bad as all the Private/secret groups around our country.

    This is What I see, in this problem.. A problem created by those that THINK its a Problem. And dont understand how this works.
    THERE ARE SOLUTIONS, but not this.
    We used to have Safe houses, for children.
    We used to have Safe access for teens.
    WE Could spend some money and create locations For kids and teens to get away FROM HOME..to Talk to others about problems and TRY to solve them.. But no. We cant do that. It costs money. IT ALREADY costs money. How much are we going to PAY an agency to sit and FIND/MONITOR/... The internet? And cellphones..

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 May 2020 @ 1:05pm

    There going to outlaw the same thing again. Let's see how that goes.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Filipescu Mircea Alexandru, 11 May 2020 @ 1:32pm

    What our governments truly care about during the COVID19 crisis

    Both Republicans and Democrats are taking advantage of the CoronaVirus crisis to attempt killing encryption and giving the government unprecedented surveillance powers. Please ask yourself: Is it a coincidence the EARN IT act was introduced just when the outbreak was in its early days, right at the point where people didn't yet know about it but secret services already admitted they did? There are rarely any coincidences at these levels.

    There are two real goals here, neither of which have anything to do with protecting children; The first is access to sensitive private conversations, especially data and trade secrets from companies for espionage purposes (what some misguided politicians confuse with National Security). The second is further working their way up to controlling the internet as a whole, knowing it's the only place where people can say inconvenient things on sensitive issues and have their voices heard by the masses, unlike television / radio / newspapers which are ultimately under their control... from the state's distorted perspective this is a huge danger to stability especially in those times.

    They especially want this sort of thing now because with the COVID19 pandemic, everyone works and communicates almost exclusively online: Internet usage has measurably spiked since the lockdown measures were put into place! This provides a treasure trove of data which secret services are slobbering to snoop on. Main difference compared to the FBI / CIA is that in other countries they at least have the decency to not make their desperation of spying on all communications that obvious... the approach they're taking here shows how desperate they are to get their way by beating around the bush and mixing all sorts of unrelated excuses.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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