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Encryption is nothing new: cryptographic messages that needed special tools to be decoded date back to ancient times. But the age of electronic communications and the widespread use of encrypted messaging apps has led to a new debate on the technology’s safety – and whether it should be allowed.

Encrypted communications are everywhere on the internet, from online banking to secure website connections. But the technology has also been criticised for allowing terrorists to communicate secretly, plotting attacks in safety that wouldn’t have been possible when they communicated by post or telephone.

What is encryption?

Fundamentally, encryption is the act of scrambling communication to stop people other than its intended recipient from reading it.

In various forms, the technique dates back millennia – Julius Caesar used basic encryption in messages to his generals – but modern warfare saw its use expanded. British codebreaking decryption of encrypted Nazi messages was seen as one of the defining moments in the war.

In the late 1960s the British intelligence organisation GCHQ started to develop the system of modern computer cryptography that is widely used today to secure online transactions and messages. A decent analogy for encryption is the digital version of sending something in a locked safe. Only those with the right key can get in.

Why encryption is important?

As we put more information online, including our photos, messages, financial transactions and other sensitive details, it becomes more important to stop people stealing them. Large attacks on companies have shown the very real danger of personal details being leaked online.

Encryption is also seen as vital for people targeted by authoritarian states who could arrest and prosecute people for the information they share online – criticising the government or expressing religious or sexual freedom.