Encryption makes us safer

Recently, leaders from both sides of the Atlantic have argued that securing our communications impedes law enforcement and puts us all at risk. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said, responding to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, “In extremis, it has been possible to read someone’s letter, to listen to someone’s call, to listen in on mobile communications.The question remains: are we going to allow a means of communications where it simply is not possible to do that? My answer to that question is: no, we must not.”

However, another leader, this one at the UN, vehemently disagrees. On Wednesday, David Kaye, the newly appointed U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, presented his landmark report on cryptography and anonymity to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. This report contains real-world facts, rather than the politically motivated rhetoric that so often obscures them. These facts include the verifiable, positive impact that encryption can have on people’s lives.

The report fearlessly walks us into the guts of modern technology, where human rights advocates and policymakers traditionally have not tread. The Special Rapporteur specifically identifies encryption and anonymity tools like Tor, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), and internet proxies, explaining exactly how they can be used to protect our fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

“Encryption and anonymity, today’s leading vehicles for online security, provide individuals with a means to protect their privacy, empowering them to browse, read, develop, and share opinions and information without interference,” he writes.

And in places where human rights are at risk, encryption does more than that. It saves lives.

We understand the value of encryption because our organization, Access, runs the Digital Security Helpline with offices across the globe. We teach journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders — many of whom risk their lives to tell truth to power and protect the rights of marginalized people — how to use encryption tools so they can communicate safely, without fear of being spied on, tracked down, or in some cases, murdered for what they believe or what they say.

As the Special Rapporteur observes, encryption and anonymity tools enable “journalists, civil society organizations, members of ethnic or religious groups, those persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, activists, scholars, artists, and others to exercise the rights to freedom of expression and opinion.”

Of course, technology is always evolving, and so too will the tools we use to protect our rights online. But what’s most important about this report won’t change. It gives lawmakers, advocates, and everyone who cares about human rights a weapon to fight the fear-mongering and damaging rhetoric being used to limit our access to today’s  —  and tomorrow’s —  tools for safeguarding our private communications.

It’s high time for us to look for positive solutions in an open and inclusive manner, not behind closed doors. That’s why on July 15th, Access will hold the first Crypto Summit in Washington, DC, where we’ll gather stakeholders from civil society, government, and the private sector to forge a pathway for using cryptography to make all of us safer.

The need to encrypt data to protect privacy and personal information is increasingly clear. The startling breach of the U.S. government’s Office of Personnel Management’s databases has exposed the records of millions of people who have had to undergo clearance review or obtain a federal background check. That includes military and intelligence officials. The data includes Standard Form 85 and 86. These forms include information about any prior mental illnesses, drug and alcohol use, any financial difficulties, Social Security numbers of employees and any cohabitants. Millions of officials in positions of “trust” are now more susceptible to phishing attacks and blackmail because this data was not encrypted.

We’re bound to hear more public officials say that encryption makes the world a more dangerous place. But remember the facts: Encryption tools and technologies are the best way to ensure that we can communicate safely and securely, and that our personal information stays out of the hands of the wrong people. It makes us all safer.

If you’d like to join us at our Crypto Summit or learn more, please feel free to contact us.