UN report: encryption and anonymity online are necessary to advance human rights

UN chamber

Encryption and anonymity on the internet are necessary for the advancement of human rights, according to a new report from the United Nations. The report from David Kaye, a UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, asserts that privacy is a “gateway for freedom of opinion and expression.”  Soon to be presented before the UN’s Human Rights Council, the report examines in detail how encryption and anonymity impact freedom of opinion and expression.

The report concludes that encryption and anonymity “deserve strong protection” because they “enable individuals to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age.”

“States should not restrict encryption and anonymity,” Kaye writes. He notes that “blanket prohibitions fail to be necessary and proportionate,” a reference to standards for human rights law as articulated in the 13 International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance. The 13 Principles are “compelling demonstrations of the law that should apply in the context of the digital age,” observes Kaye.

Kaye also calls out specific practices that threaten user rights. “States should avoid all measures that weaken the security individuals may enjoy online, such as through backdoors, weak encryption standards and key escrows.”

Timely report

Privacy rights are under daily attack. This year in Belarus, the Communications Ministry imposed a block on internet anonymizers including Tor, an anonymizer that China has successfully blocked. A report released Tuesday revealed that the Canadian telco Rogers is collaborating with ETSI, a major telecommunications standards body, in order to undermine “the core security design decisions” of end-to-end encryption. Meanwhile, a debate continues in the U.S. on requiring “backdoors” in technology to facilitate government access to users’ devices and data.

Further, governments in the UK, Germany, Australia, France, and elsewhere are proposing or have passed surveillance laws that grant sweeping powers to access users’ data without warrants, and mandate data retention.

Intermediary liability protection is also threatened by the ongoing Delfi AS v Estonia case in the European Court of Human Rights. The case, referenced in Kaye’s report, would impose liability on a news website (Delfi AS) for anonymous third party comments. Access has followed this case and intervened at the Court to allow users to post content freely, anonymously, and without government censorship. The final ruling will be presented on June 16th in Strasbourg.

With this first report, Special Rapporteur David Kaye steps onto the platform that Frank La Rue, Kaye’s predecessor, used to declare unequivocally that human rights apply online. La Rue’s groundbreaking annual reports addressed topics like the blocking and filtering of online expression, and the alarming expansion of digital surveillance in violation of human rights law and norms. Special Rapporteur Kaye has continued this important work by showing how encryption and anonymity “provide the privacy and security necessary for the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age.”

Putting principles into practice

Access believes that robust encryption is necessary to protect our communications and our private data. Our Encrypt All The Things campaign provides a seven-step Data Security Action Plan to help internet platforms protect their users’ rights.

Earlier this month, Access released an Implementation Guide that provides a framework for governments to implement surveillance programs consistent with the legal rights of the people. The guide gives practical guidance for implementing the afore-mentioned Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communication Surveillance. These 13 Principles were developed in broad consultation with international organizations. They have been endorsed by more than 400 civil society organizations worldwide including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Privacy International.

Together with the Special Rapporteur’s report, the Implementation Guide and the 13 Principles make up a powerful international toolkit for ensuring that fundamental rights are respected by all parts of governments worldwide, as well as by the private sector.

Read our press statement on the report.

Photo credit: ITU