Encryption Debate Must Include Humanitarian Concerns

Encryption Debate Must Include Humanitarian Concerns

Many cybersecurity discussions today, among often ill-informed politicians, revolve around “encryption backdoors.” For one reason or another, many think we should be able to safely and easily circumvent encryption (the codes that keep our information safe) for counterterrorism and law enforcement purposes. In fact, the so-called Five Eyes — the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Canada, and New Zealand — are now pledging to “force” encryption backdoors in private digital systems.

The FBI demanded in 2016 that Apple unlock the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter. Apple refused, but the government eventually figured out their own way in. A short while later, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Richard Burr introduced a bill to essentially outlaw end-to-end encryption (in which only the two communicating parties can see the messages). Kevin Bankston, director of the Open Technology Institute, called it “the most ludicrous, dangerous, technically illiterate proposal” he’d ever seen.

Now, reports of the FBI trying to conceal its Tor exploits are on the rise. (Tor, an anonymous Internet browser, bounces traffic around the world to protect its users’ identities.) The agency has previously avoided divulging these exploits in court in order to maintain access in cases of child pornography and terrorism, where they want to intercept and decrypt information sent over the network.

And in early 2017, troves of leaked CIA documents reveal the agency was developing tools to access messages sent over end-to-end encryption services like Signal and WhatsApp.

In discussions of encryption backdoors in the United States, the focus is typically on cryptographic technicalities, privacy rights, national security, and checks and balances. Frequently lost in the debate, however, is the effect a backdoor could have on individual lives in the rest of the world.

Thirty years ago, we could have tapped a phone in New York City without disrupting anyone else in the building, let alone someone the next block over. Today, however, the phone used by a terrorist in California is the same one used by a political dissident in Crimea or a democratic challenger in Brazil. The messaging service used by a drug ring in Mexico is the same one protecting journalists in Tanzania and news editors in Pakistan.

Just as “you can’t have a back door that’s only for the good guys,” you also can’t have a backdoor used exclusively by the United States government. As soon as a flaw is built into the system, anyone can exploit it to gain entry.

Of course, most of us know that software is ubiquitous and by and large uniformly produced. iPhones in America use the same operating systems as the ones in Europe, just like Microsoft Word is relatively consistent from China all the way to Nigeria. Bugs in the code here will become bugs in the code everywhere. However, we don’t often consider the impact of these decisions — this encryption-breaking — on citizens that are not our own.

When we think about “bad guys” who might exploit a government backdoor, we conjure up images of enemy states, identity thieves, and criminal hacker groups. But how often do we think of dictators, warlords, and domestic terror groups? How often do we consider the ways that backdoors can be exploited by the pro-censorship Chinese government, anti-gay Chechen law enforcement, or journalist killers in Guatemala and India?

Philosopher Charles Taylor referred to humanitarianism as “a moral imperative to reduce suffering.” Regardless of whether each of us draws its principles from secular theory, religion, or just a sense of “human decency,” we all need to recognize the humanitarian problem at the heart of this backdoor debate. This is not its only dimension, but it is one that can’t be ignored. Globalization and digital connectivity mean that we can no longer hide behind geographic distance when faced with these types of humanitarian issues.

The effects of backdoors will be felt around the globe in real time. So, while there are arguments on the behalf of law enforcement, national security, or the government’s power to search and seize, we also need to recognize the argument for humanitarianism. Are we comfortable trying to prevent potential terrorist attacks here at the potential expense of lives abroad? Is an American life worth more than a foreign one? Than many foreign ones? And even if nothing actually happens (with terrorists domestically and with foreigners abroad), what does the mere enhancement of this risk say about our stance towards humanitarianism?

Journalists and political dissidents die every year around the world for reporting the truth and expressing their opinions, and encryption regularly protects them from such harm. As a result, public discussion of this issue cannot be ethically circumvented. Encryption may be a politicized and misunderstood topic, but ignoring its humanitarian dimension could give rise to dangerous precedent for future technology policy and the digital world order.

Justin Sherman is a student at Duke University and the co-founder and Vice President of Ethical Tech (@ethicaltechorg).

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