Nearly 200 experts, companies and civil society groups from more than 40 countries — including Electronic Frontiers Australia, the Australian Privacy Foundation and Australian Lawyers for Human Rights — are asking governments around the world to support strong encryption and reject proposals that would undermine the digital security it provides.
"The internet belongs to the world's people, not its governments. We refuse to let this precious resource become nationalised and broken by any nation," Brett Solomon, executive director of Access Now, the online advocacy group that organised the open letter, said in a news release.
The letter, released online in 10 languages at SecureTheInternet.org, marks an escalation of a debate over encryption — a process that scrambles data so that only those authorised can decode it. The fight has been brewing for more than a year, prominent in Australia and the United States but also spreading everywhere from the United Kingdom to China.
Encryption is widely relied upon to keep e-commerce and many of the websites people use every day safe from the prying eyes of cybercriminals. But the spread of the strongest forms of encryption, those which companies themselves cannot unlock, into products from major tech companies has drawn criticism from some law enforcement officials who argue that it may allow criminals and terrorists to "go dark."
Tech companies, the officials have argued, should make sure that they are able to provide access to encrypted content for law enforcement when faced with a court order. However, technical experts say building ways for that access into products — commonly called a "backdoor" — would undermine digital security as a whole by giving hackers a new target. And civil liberties experts worry that there's nothing to stop repressive governments from pushing for the same access.
"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," said David Kaye, a law professor at the University of California Irvine and United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, who released a report on the issue last year.
Access Now began organising for the letter last year after putting together a White House petition asking the Obama administration to come out against encryption backdoors. The administration requested further public input and sat down with Access Now and other advocates last month, but it has not yet released a final response.
The White House declined to comment on the letter or the status of its response to the earlier petition. The US president has previously stated his support for "strong encryption," but it's unclear whether the administration's definition of the term lines up with that of civil liberties advocates.
Many countries are considering — or have even already passed — legislation that experts say could undermine the protection provided by encryption, and civil society groups are spread thin trying to fight them, he said.
The United Kingdom is considering a proposal that would require tech companies to build ways to intercept encrypted communications into their products. The plan has drawn formal complaints from tech companies including Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo. And in December, China passed an anti-terrorism law that requires companies to provide "technical interfaces" and assist with decryption if the country's security forces say it's necessary.
But thanks to the global nature of the internet, advocates argue that such national laws can have global implications because it leaves tech companies with a only a few options: Pull out of the country, provide a less-secure version of their services to users there, or roll out a less secure version around the world.
"A threat anywhere is devastating everywhere," White said.
The Washington Post