How encrypted messaging apps became a vital tool for surviving war

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The tragic conflict currently ravaging Ukraine has precipitated one of the largest refugee crises in Europe since World War II. Currently, an estimated 4.3 million people have fled their homes in Ukrainian cities and crossed the borders of neighboring countries. This mass exodus of civilians fleeing war and the reality of 21st century conflict in a developed region has highlighted the indispensable role of modern mobile technology in times of crisis.

Mobile technology has been an essential piece of equipment in times of conflict for many years. In 2011, when the Syrian civil war broke out, large swathes of land in the country had uninterrupted network coverage. Telephones were of paramount importance. Armed fighters used their phones to communicate with each other, texting and sending critical information about their opponents’ locations and movements. Phones equipped with up-to-date cameras also became essential for transmitting gruesome images to the outside world that laid bare the realities of war. For example, few could forget the terrifying images of the consequences of using chemical weapons against civilians. Disturbing footage of this nature, filmed by citizen journalists and posted on the websites of major international media outlets, led to sanctions imposed by the United States against senior Syrian officials in 2017.

More recently, chat and encrypted messaging (EMA) apps have been essential communication tools for civilians caught in the midst of violent conflict and for those living under authoritarian regimes. For those caught up in conflict, these apps have provided crucial public safety information and up-to-date news on the locations of invading forces. For people living in authoritarian countries, encrypted messaging has facilitated a communication channel that avoids the prying eyes of spyware, providing those governments with a wealth of information to arrest and jail political opponents. .

EMAs are actually messaging services that offer end-to-end encryption to prevent anyone but the sender and recipient from monitoring communications. The information sent through these apps is converted into a jumble of random characters and symbols which makes the original message completely secure with a special key to unlock it. Standard short message service (SMS) messages are usually unencrypted, leaving users at the mercy of hacker software that can be deployed to read all communications sent through this medium.

According to Inga Kristina Trauttig, senior researcher at the Propaganda Research Laboratory at the University of Texas Center for Media Engagement, EMAs have proven vital in the conflict in Ukraine. Viber and Telegram were particularly helpful: these two EMAs have the highest penetration rates at 98% and 86% respectively. Their high usage can largely be explained by how the Ukrainian Ministry of Health relied on these apps to relay critical health communications during the COVID-19 pandemic. Trauttig explains how these messaging services were repurposed in his Lawfare blog: “Following the Russian escalation, these established lines of communication were repurposed. The main Telegram channel dedicated to reliable information on coronaviruses in Ukraine is managed by a private company but works closely with the government and is verified by Telegram. Trauttig cites the example of Ukraine to illustrate how an apolitical communication channel can evolve “to become an important tool of citizen communication in times of war”.

Apps that cannot send or receive messages but can be used to encrypt communications have also found a market in authoritarian countries. The Android app Nahoft – which means “hidden” in Farsi – has become increasingly popular in Iran among citizens who have mobilized away from government surveillance that limits free speech and suppresses political opposition. Nahoft works completely offline and allows users to encrypt messages in a random string of Farsi words or include hidden messages in photographs. Users can then send these scrambled communications using ordinary messaging apps that are vulnerable to health monitoring. Nahoft even has a setting that destroys all of its stored user data by simply entering a code. The free app was designed by pro-human rights organization United for Iran in response to the November 2019 protests that swept across the Islamic republic and saw hundreds of protesters killed by security forces. In an effort to quell the uprising, the Iranian government implemented an unprecedented week-long internet blackout that prevented civilians from coordinating protests and prevented news from leaving the country. In the event of future internet outages, Nahoft can still be used to communicate because once users have an encoded message, it can be spoken to another person over the phone who can use their app to decrypt it.

The above are just a few examples of the growing importance of encrypted messaging apps and services in times of conflict. Moreover, these examples also serve as an argument against the expansion of state regulation of technology. In recent years, many commentators and politicians have argued for the breakup of so-called “big tech” companies such as Google’s parent company Alphabet and Facebook. These critics also argued for stronger regulation for big tech companies. Earlier this year, the UK government launched its “No Place to Hide” campaign, which calls on Facebook owner Meta to abandon end-to-end encryption plans on its Messenger and Instagram apps. Campaign supporters say such technology will make it harder for law enforcement to monitor encrypted messaging apps for child abuse images and weaken the protection of children online. However, the proposals have been criticized by industry experts who have pointed to the possibility that the door could be opened to increased government surveillance, as well as exploitation by hackers seeking to steal sensitive financial data from devices. . In March, the Chartered Institute for IT, BCS, condemned the plans as misguided, arguing they will do little to achieve the government’s desired outcome. Referring to the importance of encrypted messaging in conflict zones like Ukraine, BCS Policy Director Bill Mitchell said any move to undermine technology that is fundamentally important to citizen security would be wrong: “There should be more exploration of alternatives before we embark on the path back to E2EE, especially in this time of war, when secure messaging is a vital tool for telling the truth around the world.

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