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Cybersecurity & Standards, Free Expression, Government Surveillance

Comments on the Use of Encryption and Anonymity in Digital Communications

Since the initial June 2013 revelations from Edward Snowden of mass government surveillance of global communications networks, engineers, mathematicians, and technology and telecommunications companies around the world have devoted significant time and effort to strengthening communications networks, services, and devices against overbroad government surveillance. In recent months, high-ranking officials from some of the worst perpetrators of government surveillance have challenged the use of strong encryption and have demanded “backdoors” into encrypted communications products and services. Governments are actively trying to pressure Internet companies to weaken the encryption they apply to their users’ communications, so that government may more easily intercept private data and surveil individuals around the world.

This is the wrong approach. Weakening encryption or prohibiting its use damages the security of online transactions, the confidentiality and integrity of communications, and the individual rights to freedom of opinion and expression. Governments are obligated to protect and promote fundamental rights and should not take steps to undermine individuals’ ability to protect the security, integrity, and confidentiality of their communications. Further, as individuals increasingly rely on Internet-connected devices and remote-storage facilities to preserve their private thoughts, ideas, and creations, encryption will be essential to ensuring that they can engage in the exploration of concepts and ideas that forms the foundation for freedom of opinion.

In our comments to the Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression regarding the use of encryption and anonymity in digital communications we:

1. Explain the role of Internet intermediaries in the online communications environment and the consequences of intermediation for individuals’ right to freedom of expression;

2. Reinforce the relationship between anonymity and free expression and underscore the threat to free expression posed by widespread surveillance;

3. Describe the value of encryption and other security-enhancing technologies in safeguarding human rights online; and

4. Urge intermediaries to respect their users’ fundamental rights and implement strong encryption.