Global letter on Encryption – why it matters.

I am one of the signatories on an open letter to the governments of the world that has been released today. The letter has been organised by Access Now and there are 195 signatories – companies, organisations and individuals from around the world.

The letter itself can be found here. The key demands are the following

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It’s an important letter, and one that Should be shared as widely as possible. Encryption matters, and not just for technical reasons and not just for ‘technical’ people. Even more than that, the arguments over encryption are a manifestation of a bigger argument – and, I would argue, a massive misunderstanding that needs to be addressed: the idea that privacy and security are somehow ‘alternatives’ or at the very least that privacy is something that needs to be ‘sacrificed’ for security. The opposite is the case: privacy and security are not alternatives, they’re critical partners. Privacy needs security and security needs privacy.

The famous (and much misused) saying often attributed (probably erroneously) to Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” is not, in this context at least, strong enough. In relation to the internet, those who would give up essential privacy to purchase a little temporary security will get neither. It isn’t a question of what they ‘deserve’ – we all deserve both security and privacy – but that by weakening privacy on the internet we weaken security.

The conflict over encryption exemplifies this. Build in backdoors, weaken encryption, prevent or limit the ways in which people can use it, and you both reduce their privacy and their security. The backdoors, the weaknesses, the vulnerabilities that are provided for the ‘good guys’ can and will be used by the ‘bad guys’. Ordinary people will be more vulnerable to criminals and scammers, oppressive regimes will be able to use them against dissidents, overreaching authorities against whistleblowers, abusive spouses against their targets and so forth. People may think they have ‘nothing to hide’ from the police and intelligence agencies – but that is to fundamentally miss the point. Apart from everything else, it is never just the police and the intelligence agencies that our information needs protection from.

What is just as important is that there is no reason (nor evidence) to suggest that building backdoors or undermining encryption helps even in the terms suggested by those advocating it. None examples have been provided – and whenever they are suggested (as in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks) they quickly dissolve when examined. From a practical perspective it makes sense. ‘Tech-savvy’ terrorists will find their own way around these approaches – DIY encryption, at their own ends, for example – while non-tech savvy terrorists (the Paris attackers seem to have used unencrypted SMSs) can be caught in different ways, if we use different ways and a more intelligent approach. Undermining or ‘back-dooring’ encryption puts us all at risk without even helping. The superficial attractiveness of the idea is just that: superficial.

The best protection for us all is a strong, secure, robust and ‘privacy-friendly’ infrastructure, and those who see the bigger picture understand this. This is why companies such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter have all submitted evidence to the UK Parliament’s Committee investigating the draft Investigatory Powers Bill – which includes provisions concerning encryption that are ambiguous at best. It is not because they’re allies of terrorists or because they make money from paedophiles, nor because they’re putty in the hands of the ‘privacy lobby’. Very much the opposite. It is because they know how critical encryption is to the way that the internet works.

That matters to all of us. The internet is fundamental to the way that we live our lives these days. Almost every element of our lives has an online aspect. We need the internet for our work, for our finances, for our personal and social lives, for our dealings with governments, corporations and more. It isn’t a luxury any more – and neither is our privacy. Privacy isn’t an indulgence – and neither is security. Encryption supports both. We should support it, and tell our governments so.

Read the letter here – and please pass it on.

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