"The need for privacy has never been more urgent," said one advocate. "Encryption is a shield that protects everyone but most especially the most targeted and vulnerable communities."
A global coalition of more than 40 companies and digital rights groups on Wednesday urged governments around the world to publicly vow to "protect encryption and ensure a free and open internet."
The coalition sent its open letter to policymakers in Australia, Canada, the European Union, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States on World Press Freedom Day because digital privacy safeguards are particularly important to journalists and their sources, though advocates stressed they're essential to preserving democracy and human rights at large.
"Encryption is a critical tool for user privacy, data security, safety online, press freedom, self-determination, and free expression," states the letter. "Without encryption, users' data and communications can be accessed by law enforcement and malicious actors."
"Government attacks on encrypted services threaten privacy and put users at risk," the letter continues. "This might seem like a distant problem primarily faced in authoritarian countries but the threat is just as real and knocking at the doors of democratic nations."
"Policymakers understand the importance of privacy when it comes to opening someone else's physical mail, accessing their banking or other private information, but limit such protections online."
As the coalition, organized by Tutanoa, Fight for the Future, and Tor, explained, the value of end-to-end encryption "in defending privacy cannot be overstated, but is also seen as a threat to law enforcement who argue that the ability to freely access individuals' communications is critical for criminal investigations."
Law enforcement's narrative "has spurred worrying initiatives such as the Online Safety Bill in the U.K., the Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act and EARN IT Act in the U.S., India's Directions 20(3)/2022 – CERT-In, Bill C26 in Canada, the Surveillance Legislation Amendment Act in Australia as well as the proposed rules to prevent and combat child sexual abuse in the E.U.," the coalition noted. "These laws aim to take away the right to privacy online by forcing encrypted services to weaken the security of their users and give law enforcement access to user information upon request."
In a statement, the coalition condemned the aforementioned proposals as "alarming examples of democratic governments following in the path of authoritarian governments like Russia and Iran, who actively limit their citizens' access to encrypted services thereby weakening their human rights."
Pushing back against such measures, the letter calls on "democratic leaders" to "protect encryption and uphold the human right to privacy."
Specifically, signatories implored all governments to:
- Ensure that encryption is not being undermined via overreaching legislative initiatives;
- Ensure that technologies providing secure, encrypted services are not being blocked or throttled; and
- Revisit any bills, laws, and policies that legitimize undermining encryption or blocking access to services offering encrypted communication.
"Encrypted services are at the forefront of the battle for online privacy, freedom of the press, freedom of opinion and expression," says the letter. "Many journalists, whistleblowers, and activists depend on secure, encrypted solutions to protect their data as well as their identity. Access to these tools can be literally life or death for those who rely on them."
The open letter echoes United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres' fresh warning that "in every corner of the world, freedom of the press is under attack."
"Freedom of the press is the foundation of democracy and justice," said Guterres. "It gives all of us the facts we need to shape opinions and speak truth to power."
"Meanwhile, journalists and media workers are directly targeted on and offline as they carry out their vital work. They are routinely harassed, intimidated, detained, and imprisoned," he added. "At least 67 media workers were killed in 2022—an unbelievable 50% increase over the previous year."
"Many policymakers believe they can have a 'magical key' to access encrypted communication—completely ignoring technical facts: Encryption is either securing everyone or it is broken for everyone."
While legislative and regulatory attempts to undermine encryption are especially hazardous to reporters and dissidents, experts made clear that weakening digital privacy ultimately endangers everyone.
"Encryption is a necessary tool for safeguarding our digital rights and the principles of a free and open society. By upholding encryption within messaging apps, websites, file sharing, and other online services, we empower journalists to report on important issues while protecting their sources without fear of surveillance and retribution," said Isabela Fernandes, executive director of the Tor Project. "The Tor network is underpinned by encryption, and we have partnered with many news outlets and social media sites to launch Onion Sites that bypass censorship and allow people to safely and anonymously access, share, and publish information."
Fight for the Future campaigner Eseohe Ojo argued that "the need for privacy has never been more urgent."
"Encryption is a shield that protects everyone but most especially the most targeted and vulnerable communities," said Ojo. "This ranges from journalists and activists to LGBTQ+ folks, abortion seekers, [and] ethnic and other minorities. Why take away the tools needed to help protect them at a time they need these tools the most?"
"Policymakers understand the importance of privacy when it comes to opening someone else's physical mail, accessing their banking or other private information, but limit such protections online," she added. "Encrypted services protect and empower individuals. It is about time governments recognize and safeguard access to these tools."
Tutanota co-founder Matthias Pfau lamented that "many policymakers believe they can have a 'magical key' to access encrypted communication—completely ignoring technical facts: Encryption is either securing everyone or it is broken for everyone."
"If policymakers want a 'magical key,' they will ultimately destroy the security of all citizens, including journalists and whistleblowers who depend on encryption to expose abuses of power or other grievances in society," Pfau warned. "That's why we at Tutanota will never weaken our encryption. If governments outlaw encryption, they need to block access to our encrypted email service, just like Russia and Iran are already doing."