Who we hurt when we attack encryption

The news is full of articles that detail law enforcement agencies’ demands for access to our encrypted communications. They claim such access is required because criminals and terrorists use encryption. But that is only one side of the story.

Encryption also protects us from the very criminals law enforcement is targeting. It’s a vital tool for keeping human rights defenders safe from powerful adversaries. It is essential for basic online safety and secure transactions and communications. And it is also essential for the survival of democracy, and any hope of abiding by human rights as laid out by the United Nations.

As humans, we all need the freedom to conduct personal and private conversations online without interference. However, strong encryption meets even more urgent needs. For human rights defenders, encryption can be the difference between life and death. That is why any policy related to encryption must ensure their important work is not compromised. If we weaken or bypass encryption, and fail to protect the most at-risk individuals and organizations in our communities, more people will get killed, and vital human rights work will suffer.

Today, as COVID-19 pushes more of our activities online, more highly sensitive conversations, like those between human rights lawyers and their clients — the victims of human rights abuses — are conducted over the internet. It is imperative to keep these conversations private.

At Access Now, our Digital Security Helpline handles cases that show why encryption is essential for a safer world. Following are five examples, with the names of organizations and individuals, and any details that could leak their identities, changed or omitted to keep them safe.

Case #1: Ahead of the general election in Nicaragua, encryption helps protect civil society from surveillance, intimidation, and incarceration

Several civil society organizations in Nicaragua strongly suspect that authorities are monitoring their voice calls and SMS messages. Our helpline has assisted them in moving their sensitive communications to end-to-end encrypted messaging platforms to avoid interception of their calls and messages. 

This is urgent and necessary work: Nicaraguans are heading to the polls for a general election on November 7, 2021, and in the lead up to the election, almost all political opposition and human rights activity is being criminalized. Surveillance and intimidation of opposition politicians and human rights defenders is pervasive across the country. Not only are people facing arrest, unjust and lengthy incarcerations, or worse, many Nicaraguans are self-censoring due to the chilling effect of intimidation.

Case #2: Under a corrupt regime, encryption keeps investigators and informants safe from reprisal

An organization working to expose corruption in a country with an increasingly risky environment asked for the helpline’s assistance to protect the information they receive and store in work and personal devices. Anti-corruption investigations are among the most dangerous types of work an individual or organization can undertake. Perpetrators are typically in positions of great power, and will fully utilize that power to prevent their acts of corruption from being revealed. That makes investigators and informants targets for everything on the spectrum between intimidation to murder.

The organization in this case is working to expose corruption, monitor elections, and promote human rights and government accountability. In the country in question, civil society is under attack, journalists are being killed, and extremist groups are making threats against NGOs. That is why our helpline assisted the organization in protecting all of the sensitive data relating to cases of corruption using strong encryption.

Case #3: As refugees and migrants cross the Mediterranean, encryption keeps SOS calls secure so Alarm Phone can save lives

Alarm Phone is a self-organized hotline designed to facilitate emergency assistance for refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Run by a transnational network of civil society volunteers in Europe and Northern Africa, Alarm Phone draws attention to SOS calls, documents unfolding incidents, informs coastguards, and — when necessary — mobilizes additional rescue support in real-time. Alarm Phone facilitates vital human rights work and saves lives. Our helpline assisted in securing its communications.

Strong encryption mitigates the risks in some places where Alarm Phone operates. In some countries, governments have cracked down on organizations supporting migrants and refugees, falsely accusing them of human trafficking. Far right groups that oppose immigration also pose a risk. Keeping Alarm Phone’s communications secure reduces the risk that its work will be criminalized, or its staff harassed.

Case #4: In investigations of human trafficking, encryption keeps informants safe from organized criminals

An organization combating human trafficking reached out to our helpline to learn how to securely store digital records of highly sensitive trafficking investigations. The data they need to protect includes details about informants. If the criminals that run human trafficking operations were to intercept the organization’s communications and identify these informants, the consequences would be severe, including making the informants and any potential court witnesses targets for murder.

Case #5: When LGBTQ+ activists use social media platforms, strong authentication prevents compromise and attacks

Encryption is not only essential for keeping sensitive communications confidential. It can also ensure robust authentication, crucial for keeping human rights defenders safe online.

Our helpline assisted an LGBTQ+ activist in South Asia set up multi-factor authentication to secure their social media accounts, using a hardware token with encryption. Attackers that oppose an activist’s work often compromise a social media account to disrupt the work, identify contacts and networks, or even impersonate the activist to spread misinformation and damage their reputation.

Our online communications are only as secure as the weakest link. Governments that seek to undermine encryption, and companies that develop systems to bypass it, are yanking at the chain that keeps us safe. Yet as these cases show, strong encryption is crucial for human rights defenders.

Decisions regarding encryption, including development of mechanisms for ideologically benevolent initiatives like controlling the distribution of CSAM, should not be made based on the needs of the so-called average user. They should be made with full understanding of the impact on the people who are most at-risk: the change-makers and human rights advocates shaping the future of our democracies, rights, and freedoms.