Nearly 200 experts, companies, and activists in 42 countries have signed a letter demanding that world leaders take a stand in support of encryption technology, which protects nearly every internet transaction from banking and health records to emails and web browsing.
The letter, organized by Access Now, comes in response to the challenges being mounted against strong encryption by administrations — in the U.S. and worldwide — concerned that the technology gives criminals and terrorists a “safe space” to communicate and commit crimes with impunity.
“We’re seeing threats come up all over the world,” said Amie Stepanovich, U.S. policy manager for Access Now, to The Intercept. “This is a response to that — to draw clear lines in the sand between what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to the government acting on encryption.”
“We urge you to protect the security of your citizens, your economy, and your government by supporting the development and use of secure communications tools and technologies, rejecting policies that would prevent or undermine the use of strong encryption, and urging other leaders to do the same,” reads the letter.
In the U.S., FBI and DOJ officials have repeatedly described encryption as a major obstacle to public safety, shadowing criminal communications from view — but when asked for real-life examples of encryption thwarting major investigations, they haven’t produced credible evidence.
When it comes to uncrackable end-to-end encryption, technologists have been nearly unanimous that trying to build government access into encryption technology would be more dangerous than beneficial — allowing criminals and other nation-states the potential for that same access — and that there’s no going back, anyway.
FBI Director James Comey has been on a crusade to find some way for law enforcement to gain access to the plain text of any communication for which he has a court order. His bogeyman — end-to-end encryption — is now installed on applications like the iPhone’s iMessage by default, preventing even Apple from obtaining records of the communications.
However, partly in response to a public outcry from technologists, the White House has said it will not seek legislation prohibiting the use of end-to-end encryption.
But the U.S. isn’t the only place encryption is under fire. Countries including India, China, Kazakhstan, and beyond are also considering legislation and other proposals that would undercut strong encryption — putting internet transactions at risk globally. Some are considering ways to implement a government “backdoor” into encrypted communications.
Authors of the letter argue these proposals are wrong for many reasons.
First, anonymity online is essential to freedom of speech and expression — a key part of research done by David Kaye, United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of expression and opinion. “Encryption and anonymity, and the security concepts behind them, provide the privacy and security necessary for the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age,” he said in a press release about the global campaign.
Plus, backdoors place government communications at risk, too. An unauthorized backdoor was discovered in the products of a tech giant used by multiple government systems, Juniper, earlier this month — allowing criminals to spy on internal government processes. “Forcing companies to build backdoors into their products puts targets on the backs of the companies and their users,” said Bruce Schneier, a prominent cryptographer, in the same release.
And outlawing encryption won’t stop criminals from accessing it, either — something activists and officials alike have pointed out. “I think there’s no way we solve this entire problem. … The sophisticated user could still find a way,” Comey said himself in December, after asking companies to reconsider “their business model.”
Such an effort would only harm the U.S. economy, and put at risk average users who rely on encryption that is user-friendly and installed by default, such as that provided by Apple’s iPhones, many technologists argue.
Access Now and many other partner groups are waiting on a response from the White House to their “We The People” petition asking the president to weigh in on strong encryption. It got over 100,000 signatures on October 27, requiring the administration to respond — which Access Now expects in the not too distant future. “They’re not sitting idly by,” said Stepanovich of Access Now to The Intercept. “They’re considering it, asking for more information. Last we heard was on Christmas Eve.”
The new letter brings encryption to the forefront on a global scale.