OPINION: How encryption can shield the most vulnerable

by Joseph Lorenzo Hall | @JoeBeOne | Internet Society
Wednesday, 17 November 2021 10:20 GMT

WhatsApp and Facebook messenger icons are seen on an iPhone in Manchester , Britain March 27, 2017. REUTERS/Phil Noble

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

From LGBT+ people to journalists, strong encryption is crucial for making the Internet safer for everyone

Joseph Lorenzo Hall, Senior Vice President, Strong Internet, The Internet Society (ISOC)

Encryption is a critical technology that helps to keep Internet users’ data and communications private and secure. It operates at every level of our online environment—from hardware to software to the networks connecting it all. It’s a mesh of digital protections that most people never notice.

Businesses, individuals and governments all rely on encryption for handling sensitive and personal information while working, learning, shopping, banking and socializing. It’s the “mortar” that keeps  the bricks in the walls of our online environment from crumbling around us.

But despite encryption’s role in securing our day-to-day digital activities, the technology is under attack.

In what would set a dangerous precedent, some governments and organizations are pushing to weaken encryption, which would compromise the security of billions of people around the world.

In addition to being our lifeline during the ongoing global pandemic—for those who are connected; half of humanity does not have access—the Internet is a vital tool that helps marginalized and at-risk groups communicate and take part in society without fear of persecution or retribution.

Encryption is the foundational technology that enables trustworthy and secure communications online. Weakening it would unnecessarily place individuals around the world at risk.

Encryption is an essential tool for journalists, who must be able to communicate safely and in confidence with colleagues and sources—particularly if they operate in regions of the world where freedom of the press isn’t guaranteed.

Journalists work hard to hold the powerful to account. Unfortunately, there are many cases of the press being subject to hacking and surveillance by government entities and organized crime over their reporting.

Encryption helps to secure communications from unwanted surveillance and interception and protects journalists from threats like doxxing, online abuse, stalking, and even physical injury or detention.

Encryption also plays a direct role in ensuring the safety of journalists’ sources, many of whom are political activists in opposition of government, criminal elements, and private institutions and who face the risk of retribution should their information or identity be compromised.

Encryption is also a crucial component of keeping members of the LGBT+ community safe both online and in real life, as it is essential for establishing a foundation of trust that helps to protect freedom of expression and privacy.

For those identifying as LGBT+, finding a trusted community to connect with can be difficult. Unfortunately, many LGBT+ community members risk losing family and friends by coming out, so they turn to the Internet to find support systems.  In addition to protecting half of humanity every day, strong encryption helps to ensure the safety, privacy and integrity of marginalized and at-risk individuals around the world.

There is an increasingly popular false narrative that encryption is only used by bad actors to undermine society and commit crimes when, in reality, the benefit that encryption provides does far more to keep us safe and protected from those bad actors.

Far from making people safer, ‘backdoor’ access—where law enforcement agencies are given exceptional access to private communications—would increase the exposure of our private information and confidential conversations.

Any engineered weakness or point of entry to a secure service is a vulnerability that weakens the security of every law-abiding citizen and the entire Internet. There is no digital lock that only allows law enforcement access that cannot also allow malicious attackers access.

Strong encryption is crucial for making the Internet safer for everyone. Over two million people participated in the first ever Global Encryption Day last month advocating to protect this essential technology that safeguards the personal security of billions of people and the national security of countries around the world.

Breaking end-to-end encryption is a high price for everyone to pay. The actions of some governments in recent years have sought to unravel the hard-won security and privacy of all Internet users. It is essential that those who have the most to lose, and their allies, speak up now in support of encryption.