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"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." (Photo: Yuri Samoilov/flickr/cc)

No Backdoors: Online 'Zone of Privacy' is a Basic Human Right

Report from UN Special Rapporteur says encryption and anonymity are critical to ensuring privacy and freedom of expression

Deirdre Fulton

Encryption and anonymity tools, which help protect individuals' private data and communications, are essential to basic human rights, according to a report released Friday by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Issued while U.S. lawmakers are engaged in heated debates over online privacy, data collection, and so-called 'back-door' surveillance methods, the document recommends holding proposed limits on encryption and anonymity to a strict standard: "If they interfere with the right to hold opinions, restrictions must not be adopted."

"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."
—UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye

The report, written by UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye, is based on questionnaire responses submitted by 16 countries, opinions submitted by 30 non-government stakeholders, and statements made at a meeting of experts in Geneva in March.

The document reads, in part: "Encryption and anonymity, today’s leading vehicles for online security, provide individuals with a means to protect their privacy, empowering them to browse, read, develop and share opinions and information without interference and enabling journalists, civil society organizations, members of ethnic or religious groups, those persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, activists, scholars, artists and others to exercise the rights to freedom of opinion and expression." 

Kaye makes specific mention of tech tools such as Tor, a free software that directs Internet traffic through a free, worldwide, volunteer network consisting of more than 6,000 servers to conceal users' location and usage from anyone conducting online surveillance.

Such tools, the report continues, "create a zone of privacy to protect opinion and belief. 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."

Among its many recommendations for states and corporations, the document advises that governments "avoid all measures that weaken the security that individuals may enjoy online."

It cites "broadly intrusive measures" such as the back-doors that tech companies build into their products in order to facilitate law enforcement access to encrypted content. In the U.S., FBI Director James Comey and NSA chief Adm. Michael Rogers have both expressed support for backdoors and other restrictions on encryption.

The problem with all of those approaches is that they "inject a basic vulnerability into secure systems," Kaye told the Washington Post. "It results in insecurity for everyone even if intended to be for criminal law enforcement purposes."

The report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council next month. According to The Hill, the White House is expected to release a report soon detailing several options for law enforcement to bypass encryption and access data during investigations.


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