Defending Digital Privacy, 200+ Groups & Experts Decry Global Attack on Encryption

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Defending Digital Privacy, 200+ Groups & Experts Decry Global Attack on Encryption

'Encryption tools, technologies, and services are essential to protect against harm and to shield our digital infrastructure and personal communications from unauthorized access.'

U.S. officials have increasingly urged tech companies to create "backdoors" to encrypted communications as an aid to law enforcement, but tech leaders are largely resisting the call. (Photo: Christiaan Colen/flickr/cc)

A coalition of cyber activists and advocacy groups from 42 countries on Monday released a letter defending encryption and calling on governments to end efforts at undermining such digital privacy tools.

"Encryption tools, technologies, and services are essential to protect against harm and to shield our digital infrastructure and personal communications from unauthorized access," reads the letter, a project of digital rights group Access Now and signed by organizations such as the ACLU, Amnesty International, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future, Human Rights Watch, and La Quadrature du Net, among nearly 200 others.

"As we move toward connecting the next billion users, restrictions on encryption in any country will likely have global impact," the letter continues. "Encryption and other anonymizing tools and technologies enable lawyers, journalists, whistleblowers, and organizers to communicate freely across borders and to work to better their communities. It also assures users of the integrity of their data and authenticates individuals to companies, governments, and one another."

U.S. officials have increasingly urged tech companies to create "backdoors" to encrypted communications as an aid to law enforcement investigating alleged terrorist activity. But many of those companies' high-profile executives, such as Apple's Tim Cook, have resisted the call, warning that reducing encryption safeguards threatens users' safety online by making them vulnerable to third-party hackers.

And human rights leaders, such as United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of expression David Kaye, who also signed the letter, have said that privacy is a human right.

"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," Kaye said in a press release accompanying the letter.

Last week, top U.S. officials met with tech leaders in a private summit in San Jose, California, with news reports circulating copies of a vague agenda for the meeting that read in part, "How can we make it harder for terrorists to use the internet to mobilize, facilitate, and operationalize attacks, and make it easier for law enforcement and the intelligence community to identify terrorist operatives and prevent attacks?"

At least one executive told the Guardian that White House chief of staff Denis McDonough issued invitations to discuss terrorism, making the surprise focus on encryption feel like a "bait and switch."

As Guardian columnist and Freedom of the Press co-founder Trevor Timm explained at the time, "Despite the huge security benefits to encryption and the fact that it has not played a significant role in any of the recent terrorist attacks, the FBI has been on a warpath to get tech companies to stop using end-to-end encryption in some of their communications tools, essentially asking tech giants to give the government a ‘backdoor’ to make sure there is not any communication platform that they cannot spy on."

Timm is also a signatory to the letter. As its list of international backers reflects, the push for backdoors to encryption is growing throughout the world.

In November, just days after the attacks in Paris which killed 130 people, French President François Hollande announced that he would propose a bill to extend the country's state of emergency by three months and make changes to the French Constitution that would strip citizenship of convicted terrorists, increase surveillance, and employ "more sophisticated methods" to curb the weapons trade.

That announcement was met with skepticism and warnings from digital rights groups who said reflexive nationalism and reduction of civil liberties "is not only irreverent, it also [puts] us and many others in a difficult position," as the German organization Digitalcourage put it. "Grief and anger are understandable emotions. But they must not be abused."

Monday's letter concluded, "Strong encryption and the secure tools and systems that rely on it are critical to improving cybersecurity, fostering the digital economy, and protecting users. Our continued ability to leverage the internet for global growth and prosperity and as a tool for organizers and activists requires the ability and the right to communicate privately and securely through trustworthy networks."

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