Modern field guide to security and privacy

Opinion: Encryption makes us more secure, not less

Instead of pushing to diminish tools that are meant to protect modern communications and safeguard speech, our leaders should work toward lasting solutions that can actually thwart terrorism. 


Over the past nine days, terrorists have killed at least 200 people in Paris, Beirut, the West Bank, and Mali. Each of those people were robbed of a lifetime of possibilities. Every life should be celebrated, and every death will be mourned. These victims, and the loved ones they left behind, deserve better than the shallow reactions that many of our law and policymakers are offering in lieu of real leadership, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Terrorism cannot be tolerated. But neither should we tolerate those in power capitalizing on mass violence – and the fear it is designed to incite – to undermine our rights.

Even before the dust has settled to verify facts, several politicians have blamed the Paris attacks on citizens' growing demands for privacy more generally, and on the use of encryption tools more specifically. Without citing evidence, some suggest that the terrorists were able to carry out these horrifying acts because they have the capacity to use encrypted channels to communicate. Their logic is that if we weaken encryption, we can stop terrorism.

But even if we passed laws to weaken encryption, it would not stop terrorist attacks. It also would not prevent terrorists from getting access to encryption tools – including the strongest tools available. Instead, it would take these tools out of the hands of innocent, law-abiding Internet users and thereby undermine our own security and human rights.

People all around the world use encryption technology every day. Encryption protects us against data breaches and dissuades device theft. In the most dire of circumstances such as the organization of LGBT activists in some Middle East countries, it saves lives.

That's why United Nations Special Rapporteur David Kaye has explicitly tied encryption to human rights: It allows us to exercise the rights to privacy and free expression in the digital age – rights guaranteed in international treaties and constitutions across the globe.

In our imperfect world, we will never have perfect security. But the victims of terrorist attacks deserve our best effort to find real solutions.

That means engaging in open dialogue and developing policies that will address the root causes of terrorism – not pushing through reactionary legislation that would do us more harm than good. Around the world, from the US to Mumbai, we're still fighting to roll back harmful policies passed in the immediate wake of terrorist attacks, some of which intelligence officials admit have never meaningfully contributed to investigating or preventing terrorist attacks.

Those of us who support the prolific use of encryption do not do so to oppose law enforcement – we do so to protect public safety and security and the free exercise of human rights. If we want to protect people, we should be supporting the deployment and use of encryption.

In times of crisis, we should be able to rely on our leaders to affirm and strengthen our rights and our freedoms, not strip them away. And when people’s lives are at stake, we deserve better than knee-jerk rhetoric. We need to work together to fight terrorism with real-world solutions, and stop demonizing practices and technologies that keep us more safe, not less.


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