Encryption is not the refuge of scoundrels, as Obama administration law-enforcement officials loudly proclaim – it is an essential tool needed to protect the right of freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age, anew United Nations report concludes.
Encryption that makes a communication unintelligible to anyone but the intended recipient creates “a zone of privacy to protect opinion and belief,” says the report from David Kaye, who as Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression is essentially the U.N.’s free speech watchdog.
The significance of encryption extends well beyond political speech, Kaye writes. “The ability to search the web, develop ideas and communicate securely may be the only way in which many can explore basic aspects of identity, such as one’s gender, religion, ethnicity, national origin or sexuality.”
Encryption, like anonymity, is essential to artists, journalists, whistleblowers, and many other classes of people, the report says.
And far from banning or weakening encryption, governments should embrace and strengthen it, Kaye writes. He specifically urges the U.S. Congress to “prohibit the Government from requiring companies to weaken product security or insert back-door access measures.”
Obama administration officials have been advocating for encryption with some sort of built-in measure that law enforcement could circumvent, either an intentional weakness that creates a “back door,” or some sort of split “master key”.
Newly-installed Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Wednesday became the latest to engage in fear-mongering, saying she had “grave concerns” about encryption’s use by “people whose sworn duty is to harm Americans here and abroad.”
National Security Agency director Mike Rogers took a slightly more nuanced view on Wednesday, ZDNet reported. “You’re not going to hear me say that encryption is a bad thing. I don’t think it is a bad thing. Encryption is not bad. Encryption is a fundamental part of the future; I think it would be ridiculous to pretend otherwise,” Rogers told a cyberwarfare conference in Estonia.
But he expressed his desire for a legal framework that would give law enforcement access, asking: “Can we create some mechanism where within this legal framework there’s a means to access information that directly relates to the security of our respective nations, even as at the same time we are mindful we have got to protect the rights of our individual citizens?”
Kaye’s answer is: No. He concludes from his research that “compromised encryption cannot be kept secret from those with the skill to find and exploit the weak points, whether State or non-State, legitimate or criminal.” Thus: “In the contemporary technological environment, intentionally compromising encryption, even for arguably legitimate purposes, weakens everyone’s security online.”
And Kaye points out that law enforcement officials “have not demonstrated that criminal or terrorist use of encryption serves as an insuperable barrier to law enforcement objectives.”
Indeed, FBI Director James Comey gave a much-quoted speech last fall about how increasingly common cell-phone encryption could lead law enforcement to a “very dark place” where it “misses out” on crucial evidence to nail criminals. But the examples he then gave failed the laugh test.
The United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights appoints expert “special rapporteurs” to be their eyes and ears when it comes to key human rights issues. Kaye, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, began his three-year term as the rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression in August 2014.
His report also warns that state prohibitions of anonymity online — such as required real-name registration for online activity, SIM card registration, or banning of anonymity tools such as Tor — interfere with the right to freedom of expression.
Encryption advocates hailed the report. “This landmark report shows how fundamental — and necessary — encryption is for exercising freedom of expression,” said Access Senior Policy Counsel Peter Micek. “It’s a sober rebuke of baseless fear-mongering from those who say encryption only helps criminals and terrorists.”