Activism Technology

Digital Rights Organizations Launch; pixabay
Written by Ethan M. Long, a project backed by 19 digital rights and free speech organizations, launched today. The website urges visitors to sign a petition to the White House demanding the administration reject policies that would undermine strong encryption.

“The government should not erode the security of our devices or applications, pressure companies to keep and allow government access to our data, mandate implementation of vulnerabilities or backdoors into products, or have disproportionate access to the keys to private data,” the petition states.

FBI Director James Comey has argued against strong encryption over this past summer. He dismayingly told a group of Senators, while talking with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) that the Bureau “can’t break strong encryption,” during a hearing on July 8.

During the same hearing, Senator McCain stated that, “with all due respect talking about attacks on privacy and our Constitutional rights et cetera,” it seemed to him that “our first obligation is the protection of our citizenry against attack, which you agree is growing. Is that a fact?”

Once again, personal liberty is at odds with national security, and our government is willing to stretch the public’s trust, believing that the people they’re hired to represent care more about catching terrorists than personal privacy and freedom.

Of course, encryption is used for a reason: to shield data and information from prying eyes. The FBI and members in Congress use the argument of terrorism again and again in their rhetoric supporting weakened encryption and backdoor surveillance.

But terrorists aren’t the only ones interested in encryption. Journalists, corporations, and private citizens use encryption to protect sources, trade secrets, and their own peace of mind. The implementation of a backdoor becomes a vulnerability to whatever that user wants protected. Chances are, if there’s a backdoor that the government can get into, a foreign intelligence agency, criminal hacker group, or precocious teenager might also be able to finagle their way in there.

The list of organizations backing SaveCrypto will look familiar to those who have some experience in the realm of digital rights. The EFF, Fight for the Future, Demand Progress, and the ACLU are among the organizations proudly displayed on the bottom of the site. They are joined by free speech advocates like the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Freepress Action Fund, along with some surprising establishment actors, like the Internet Infrastructure Coalition and Twitter.

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Defending strong encryption is often seen as a fringe “Internet People Problem” in the greater world of activism, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that if our rights do not follow us online, we may as well not have them in the first place. Initiatives to defend encryption not only help whistleblowers, activists, and paranoid nerds, but they help private industries. In a world where nations hire hackers for 9 to 5 jobs attempting to steal trade secrets from foreign companies, implementing backdoors in communications is a terrible idea.

This is why there is also an argument for stronger encryption, with no backdoor, to protect those working in the United States government. The ACLU argued for this last week in a letter sent to Congress urging them to provide strong data encryption for themselves, government agencies, and members of their staffs.

“While the civil liberties implications of vulnerable government information technology may not be readily apparent, they are nonetheless, and increasingly, significant,” the letter states.

This was in response to a breach at the Office of Personnel and Management that compromised the data of 4.2 million Federal government employees.

FBI Director Comey actually wrote about the pros and cons of strong encryption in a blog post for the Brookings Institute’s Lawfare Blog.

“Universal strong encryption will protect all of us — our innovation, our private thoughts, and so many other things of value — from thieves of all kinds,” he wrote. “We will all have lock-boxes in our lives that only we can open and in which we can store all that is valuable to us. There are lots of good things about this.”

But again, he digresses.

“There are many costs to this. Public safety in the United States has relied for a couple centuries on the ability of the government, with predication, to obtain permission from a court to access the “papers and effects” and communications of Americans. The Fourth Amendment reflects a trade-off inherent in ordered liberty: To protect the public, the government sometimes needs to be able to see an individual’s stuff, but only under appropriate circumstances and with appropriate oversight.”

Two days before the July 8 hearing, a group of researchers at MIT released “Keys Under Doormats: Mandating insecurity by requiring government access to all data and communications” which states that those in government positions “argue that the growing use of encryption will neutralize their investigative capabilities. They propose that data storage and communications systems must be designed for exceptional access by law enforcement agencies. These proposals are unworkable in practice, raise enormous legal and ethical questions, and would undo progress on security at a time when Internet vulnerabilities are causing extreme economic harm.”

During the hearing, Comey referenced the report, saying that, “I’m skeptical that we can’t find a solution that overcomes that harm. But a lot of serious people say ‘ah, you don’t realize, you’ll rush into something and it’ll be a disaster for your country. Because it’ll kill your innovation, it’ll kill the Internet.’ That causes me to at least pause and say ‘well, okay, let’s talk about it.’”

“As a public, we should be confident that the services we use haven’t been weakened or compromised by government mandate or pressure,” says the SaveCrypto petition. “No legislation, executive order, or private agreement with the government should undermine our rights.”

In order for a larger discussion to happen, there needs to be support so that Comey and others in the government knows that it’s a subject the American people care about. Every signature on the SaveCrypto petition will be transferred to a petition in hopes that it will become “the most popular petition in the site’s history.”


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About the author

Ethan M. Long

Ethan Long is a journalist based out of Boston, MA.

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Digital Rights Organizations Launch

by Ethan M. Long
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