The United Nations released a report this week the underscored the importance of encryption and anonymity in the digital age, in order to preserve basic rights and freedoms. Authored by the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, the document calls attention to the importance of private communications and calls on member states to protect tools that encourage privacy under the law.
The report calls for just the opposite of what our elected officials are subjecting us to. Thanks to legislation like the Patriot Act, America’s secret police run the most extensive domestic spying program in the world, maintaining a detailed file on every American citizen. Every single bit of information transmitted on an American computer or phone network is logged and stored by the NSA.
Lawmakers have recently been pushing to limit encryption as it makes such spying programs less effective, as while the secret police have all the data they cannot decrypt it and therefore cannot tell what is inside.
Such programs, now known to the public thanks to Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing, are increasingly unpopular and are leading to protests.
The new report from David Kaye, a UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, looked to shine a light on the complex issues surrounding state surveillance by asking two questions:
– Do the rights to privacy and freedom of opinion and expression protect secure online communication, specifically by encryption or anonymity?
– Assuming an affirmative answer, to what extent may Governments, in accordance with human rights law, impose restrictions on encryption and anonymity?
As many states impose extreme measures to restrict citizens’ abilities to send and impart knowledge without fear, Kaye found that journalists, activists and other engaged parties need specialist tools to make sure their voices are heard.
“A VPN connection, or use of Tor or a proxy server, combined with encryption, may be the only way in which an individual is able to access or share information in such environments,” Kaye says.
Noting that individuals should be able to send and receive information beyond their borders, the rapporteur states that some member states act to deny those freedoms by restricting communications using aggressive filtering.
“Encryption enables an individual to avoid such filtering, allowing information to flow across borders. Moreover, individuals do not control — and are usually unaware of — how or if their communications cross borders. Encryption and anonymity may protect information of all individuals as it transits through servers located in third countries that filter content,” Kaye wrote.
While encryption can often beat state censors, staying anonymous is vital to continued freedom of expression. Forcing users to be identified by name has been repeatedly shown to stifle free speech and honest dialog.
“Anonymity has been recognized for the important role it plays in safeguarding and advancing privacy, free expression, political accountability, public participation and debate,” says the UN report.
“Some States exert significant pressure against anonymity, offline and online. Yet because anonymity facilitates opinion and expression in significant ways online, States should protect it and generally not restrict the technologies that provide it.”
Let’s hope Facebook and our ‘elected’ officials are listening.