Tech by VICE

United Nations: Encryption and Online Anonymity Are Basic Human Rights

"Modern approaches to private and secure communication draw on ideas that have been with humankind for millenniums."

by Jason Koebler
May 28 2015, 6:15pm

Image: United Nations

The ability to anonymize yourself online and encrypt your data and communications is fundamental to free expression and should be a protected human right, a United Nations report said Thursday. The agency added that the tools are "necessary for the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age."

The world's most important intergovernmental organization finally weighed in on the encryption debate that's been raging over the last year or so. Last year, Apple and Google both announced plans to make encryption default on their mobile operating systems, meaning only users with a passkey would be able to access data stored on their devices. The FBI, NSA, and intelligence groups in the United Kingdomhe FBI, NSA, and intelligence groups in the United Kingdom immediately said that such a move would make tracking criminals more difficult, and rallied against it.

Since then, the FBI has repeatedly waged a public relations campaign asking politicians and hardware manufacturers to work on making encryption crackable by the government in certain instances, a move that essentially everyone in the security field has said would ruin encryption altogether, creating vulnerabilities that could be exploited by authoritarian governments or hackers.

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice has said that anonymizing software such as Tor, which can be used to access hidden services, have created a "zone of lawlessness" used by criminals.

The UN, in a report from the body's Human Rights Council's special rapporteur, said that any attempt to undermine encryption must be looked at as an affront to human rights.

"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," the report said. "Such security may be essential for the exercise of other rights, including economic rights, privacy, due process, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and the right to life and bodily integrity."

In the 21 page report (embedded below), the body repeatedly outlines why encryption and anonymity are important, and why any attempt to break it could threaten those living under an authoritarian government. It further stated that groups such as the FBI who have proposed "backdoor access" have not proven that encryption puts up additional barriers for law enforcement to do their job.

The UN's take on the issue aligns closely with what human rights groups and security experts in the United States have been saying repeatedly: that it's impossible to give a "back door" to the FBI or NSA without also creating a vulnerability for hackers to exploit.

"It is a seemingly universal position among technologists that there is no special access that can be made available only to government authorities, even ones that, in principle, have the public interest in mind," the report said. "Intentionally compromising encryption, even for arguably legitimate purposes, weakens everyone's security online."

Experts have also noted that encryption makes people safer from crime overall, even if there are a few bad actors who use it to commit and conceal crimes.

"Modern approaches to private and secure communication draw on ideas that have been with humankind for millenniums," the report noted. "Encryption and anonymity provide individuals and groups with a zone of privacy online to hold opinions and exercise freedom of expression without arbitrary and unlawful interference or attacks."

Digital human rights groups such as Access called the paper a "landmark report" because it specifically calls on governments to avoid banning encryption. In fact, the paper lauds those governments, such as Brazil, that have codified encryption as an inalienable right.

"This landmark report shows how fundamental—and necessary—encryption is for exercising freedom of expression," Peter Micek, Access's senior policy council said in an email. "It's a sober rebuke of baseless fear-mongering from those who say encryption only helps criminals and terrorists."