Encryption and Privacy..

January 13, 2016 |

The friction, if not outright conflict, between government authorities wanting access to data and viable and trusted encryption is a significant ongoing controversy.  Government claims that national security and crime fighting imperatives require it to have access by either a key or a backdoor to encryption programs.  Cyber businesses, internet service providers and internet activist groups argue that anything that building in backdoors to encryption programs will neither assist crime fighting or improve national security but will compromise the integrity of communications, the use of the internet itself, harm the economy and hamper innovation.  The US Government has already stated that it will not legislate access to encrypted information.  The Dutch Government followed suit last week.

Opposition to encryption is not confined to extremist activists.  The Economist, a very mainstream news magazine, and most technology journals are opposed to giving government agencies access to keys or requiring encryption programs to have backdoors. But just to make things interesting and complicated some innovators are seeking a third way, providing some form of access in limited circumstances, as most dramatically described by the proposal by David Chaum, the father of anonymity, in the Wired piece last week titled The Father of Online Anonymity Has a Plan to End the Crypto War.

The recent Paris terror attacks have renewed the debate, this time with Governments claiming that encryption backdoors are necessary to find and detect terrorists before they act.  A familiar argument.

An activist group, Secure the Internet, has made the latest contribution to the debate with an open letter to world leaders calling on governments not to compromise encryption.  It provides:

To the leaders of the world’s governments –

We urge you to protect the security of your citizens, your economy, and your government by supporting the development and use of secure communications tools and technologies, rejecting policies that would prevent or undermine the use of strong encryption, and urging other leaders to do the same.

Encryption tools, technologies, and services are essential to protect against harm and to shield our digital infrastructure and personal communications from unauthorized access. The ability to freely develop and use encryption provides the cornerstone for today’s global economy. Economic growth in the digital age is powered by the ability to trust and authenticate our interactions and communicate and conduct business securely, both within and across borders.

Some of the most noted technologists and experts on encryption recently explained (PDF) that laws or policies that undermine encryption would “force a U-turn from the best practices now being deployed to make the Internet more secure,” “would substantially increase system complexity” and raise associated costs, and “would create concentrated targets that could attract bad actors.” The absence of encryption facilitates easy access to sensitive personal data, including financial and identity information, by criminals and other malicious actors. Once obtained, sensitive data can be sold, publicly posted, or used to blackmail or embarrass an individual. Additionally, insufficiently encrypted devices or hardware are prime targets for criminals.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur for freedom of expression has noted, “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.” As we move toward connecting the next billion users, restrictions on encryption in any country will likely have global impact. Encryption and other anonymizing tools and technologies enable lawyers, journalists, whistleblowers, and organizers to communicate freely across borders and to work to better their communities. It also assures users of the integrity of their data and authenticates individuals to companies, governments, and one another.

We encourage you to support the safety and security of users by strengthening the integrity of communications and systems. All governments should reject laws, policies, or other mandates or practices, including secret agreements with companies, that limit access to or undermine encryption and other secure communications tools and technologies.  Users should have the option to use – and companies the option to provide – the strongest encryption available, including end-to-end encryption, without fear that governments will compel access to the content, metadata, or encryption keys without due process and respect for human rights. Accordingly:

  • Governments should not ban or otherwise limit user access to encryption in any form or otherwise prohibit the implementation or use of encryption by grade or type;
  • Governments should not mandate the design or implementation of “backdoors” or vulnerabilities into tools, technologies, or services;
  • Governments should not require that tools, technologies, or services are designed or developed to allow for third-party access to unencrypted data or encryption keys;
  • Governments should not seek to weaken or undermine encryption standards or intentionally influence the establishment of encryption standards except to promote a higher level of information security. No government should mandate insecure encryption algorithms, standards, tools, or technologies; and
  • Governments should not, either by private or public agreement, compel or pressure an entity to engage in activity that is inconsistent with the above tenets.

Strong encryption and the secure tools and systems that rely on it are critical to improving cybersecurity, fostering the digital economy, and protecting users. Our continued ability to leverage the internet for global growth and prosperity and as a tool for organizers and activists requires the ability and the right to communicate privately and securely through trustworthy networks.

We look forward to working together toward a more secure future.

This development has been picked up by the Age with Australians join international protest against government ‘backdoors’ in encryption.

For privacy practitioners encryption is a critical part of maintaining data security.  The Information Commissioner has endorsed encryption as part of maintaining adequate protections, stating:

Encryption software uses a complex series of embedded mathematical algorithms to protect and encrypt information.  This process hides the data and prevents any inadvertent access or unauthorised disclosure of information. Since encryption standards are always evolving, it is recommended that data controllers ensure that any solution which is implemented, meets the current standard such as the recommended FIPS 140-2 (cryptographic modules, software and hardware) and FIPS – 197. Encryption products certified via CESG’s CPA or CAPS schemes to at least FOUNDATION grade would also meet the current standard.

and referred users to advice on encryption on sites such as Get Safe on line.

The debate has a long way to go.

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