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Encryption and surveillance: The unstoppable force and the immovable object of the internet age

The debate over the rights and wrongs of encryption has not been resolved - and it's possible that it never can be.

Encryption has created one of the trickiest challenges of the internet age. Image: iStock

The US government has decided not - at least for now - to seek new laws to force tech companies to decode their customers' encrypted communications.

Over the last year there has been a gradually intensifying debate about what to do about the growth of end-to-end encrypted communications: because of the way these systems are designed, these messages are all-but-impossible to spy on.

Intelligence agencies and police have warned about the problem of 'going dark', that criminals and terrorists are using these systems to plot in uncrackable secrecy. This has led to calls for legislation to force the companies that offer such services to hand over customers' messages unencrypted, when required by law enforcement. Privacy campaigners on the other hand have argued that any such move would undermine the security of the internet and extend already-excessive state-sponsored snooping even further.

This week the director of the FBI confirmed that any such legislation is off the table right now.

It was probably an inevitable decision, at least in the current climate: post-Snowden, the administration would find it impossible to persuade the public that the police and intelligence agencies (and the NSA in particular) don't have enough forms of digital surveillance to call on.

In truth, the downsides were just too clear: no one could clearly explain how creating some kind of encryption backdoor could work without fundamentally undermining the security we all rely on when using the internet. Indeed, it's not entirely clear how any legislation would have worked in practice, or how effective it could have been considering how pervasive and easy to write (if not always easy to use) encryption software is.

And demands from the US for access to encrypted communications would have undoubtedly been followed by similar demands from other countries - and regimes - around the globe. This decision by the US is a boost for privacy globally.

The most obvious short-term consequence is that any UK law - or indeed any law in any other country - that tries to force technology companies to decrypt their customers' communications is now doomed to fail.

The majority of the companies offering encrypted services are operating out of the US: if they aren't obliged to decode messages for local law enforcement, then they certainly aren't going to listen to the plaintive cries of police or spies in foreign countries that have no legal power over them.

But just because there isn't a new law, that doesn't mean that encrypted conversations are totally secret. The NSA and GCHQ have both spent decades working on cracking these codes and perfecting other ways to eavesdrop, all of which will, no doubt, continue. And cops and spies will still have plenty to go on, even if they can't get access to some forms of communication: the digital trail we all leave behind us is rich in data.

And the argument will surface again, for sure. Because what's for certain is that the future will feature more encryption, and more data.

One example: with the Internet of Things (which is really the internet of people) arrives there's going to be more and more data around. What we eat, what we do in our homes, who we meet and where we go will all be recorded by sensors. And many will feel they want to protect that information from prying eyes, while law enforcement will likely want access to it. Strong encryption could well be applied to this and more and more types of data.

So this is unlikely to be the end of the story. The issue remains: there is an unresolved clash between the perfect privacy of strong encryption and demands of police to investigate and prevent crime. These are the unstoppable force and the immovable object of the digital age.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on the Monday Morning Opener:

Could the FTC prevent Google taking much-needed control of Android?

The death of this revolution has been greatly exaggerated

Apple's iPhone: Looking at its past and present to predict its future

Intel's next frontier: Powering robots

An extended winter looming for OEMs

When robots eliminate jobs, humans will find better things to do

Microsoft and mobile: Searching for a way forward

Who will have the courage to build the future again?

Apple Watch: Now the hard work really begins

BlackBerry has nothing to lose, so why not try out Android?