Monday, 1 June 2015

UN says encryption is essential for free speech

The BBC says so here.  For anyone reading this, it probably seems like a blinding flash of the obvious, but it’s not obvious to everyone.  Or it’s obvious to everyone but lots of people think free speech is less important than catching criminals, which is to say that they think free speech is not important at all.
The UN is releasing a report in June which says that the sort of thing governments are all the time trying to do to encryption – force it to have backdoors or be otherwise weak – will prevent people saying what they want – or need – to say to others without censure. There’s an advance copy here.
"Encryption and anonymity, separately or together, create a zone of privacy to protect opinion and belief," says the report written by David Kaye, a special rapporteur in the UN's office of the high commissioner for human rights.
Kaye gets it:
The tools to bestow such protection are essential, it says, given the "unprecedented capacity" governments, companies, thieves and pranksters now have to interfere with people's ability to express themselves.
Lacking such tools, it adds, many people will be unable to fully explore "basic aspects of their identity" such as their gender, religion, ethnicity, origins or sexuality.
Unfortunately, and pretty much by definition, the people in charge are rarely the people who need to act in the face of oppression, although they might be among those people with the most to lose if their communications are intercepted.  And history has shown that they are often among those with the most to hide.  Perhaps this is why governments are always so keen to ban encryption; their members know what they are getting away with and they assume everyone else wants to use encryption for the same sorts of reason.
The software acts as a "shield" for opinions against external scrutiny - a fact that is "particularly important in hostile political, social, religious and legal environments", says the report.
Very much that.  But it’s also a tool for preventing – or at least slowing – the spread of unwarranted mass surveillance by even benign governments.
The report acknowledges the need for police forces and other agencies to get at encrypted messages and other communications - but says this should be done on a "case-by-case" basis and should not be applied to a "mass of people".

That’s right.  Surveillance is often warranted and we’d certainly be a lot less safe if our police and security services couldn’t spy on people when there was a genuine and good reason.  The problem is when we’re all under surveillance or can be placetd under surveillance without a proven case or adequate oversight.  While Cameron isn’t proposing that just yet, breaking encryption now will make it a lot easier to take that step in the future.  And who knows what GCHQ is doing already in this post-Snowden world?

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