A new report from the United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights says digital security and privacy are essential to maintaining freedom of opinion and expression around the world — and warns that efforts to weaken security tools in some countries may undermine it everywhere.
The report written by special rapporteur David Kaye says that encryption — the process of digitally scrambling information so that only authorized persons can access it — and anonymity tools “provide the privacy and security necessary for the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age.” The report will be presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council next month.
It comes amid a growing debate in the U.S. about how to best balance personal privacy rights and national security. Since former government contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations about National Security Agency surveillance programs, tech companies have scrambled to encrypt more of their products.
Now, some U.S. law enforcement officials are pushing to have tech companies build ways for the government to access secure content passing through their products — so-called “backdoors.”
FBI Director James Comey and NSA chief Adm. Michael Rogers have said that the growth in encryption use could make it harder to track criminals — and argued that the government should require companies to build ways for law enforcement to access encrypted content.
Earlier this year, Rogers floated the idea of a having companies split up the digital “key” used to decode encrypted content into multiple parts so that no one person or agency alone could decide to use it. The proposal appeared to be an attempt to win over security experts, who have been skeptical that such “backdoors” could be deployed securely.
The report recommends against backdoors, saying “[s]tates should avoid all measures that weaken the security that individuals may enjoy online, such as backdoors, weak encryption standards and key escrows.”
The problem with all of those approaches is that they inject a basic vulnerability into secure systems, Kaye said in an interview with the Post. “It results in insecurity for everyone even if intended to be for criminal law enforcement purposes,” he said.
The public debate on the issue in the U.S., which has focused on terrorism and crime, isn’t taking into account how vital encryption is to protecting journalists, activists, and everyday people around the world, according to Kaye.
“There are many millions of people who depend on tools like encryption or [the anonymous browsing tool] Tor to ensure as much as they can against disclosure of their communications and to seek out information,” he said.
If the United States goes through with policies that mandate backdoors for law enforcement, it could encourage other nations with poor human rights records to push for similar concessions, he said. “It’s pretty clear that when well established democracies do things that are inconsistent with human rights law, others around the world who aren’t necessarily in the democratic camp take that as an example of something that’s permitted,” said Kaye.