Ahead of President’s Cybersecurity Summit, OTI Highlights Importance of Encryption

Policymakers should heed the lessons of the Crypto Wars of the 90s so that we aren’t doomed to repeat them, OTI says in UN filing
Press Release
Feb. 12, 2015

Yesterday, OTI submitted comments to the United Nations Human Rights Council highlighting the critical importance of strong encryption technology as a tool for protecting human rights, cybersecurity, and the Internet economy. OTI submitted the comments in response to a call by David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression, who is preparing a study on the relationship between freedom of expression and the use of encryption technology. Privacy and human rights advocates such as Human Rights Watch, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Center for Democracy & Technology also submitted comments.

The filing comes amidst a heated debate over whether or not consumers should have access to strong encryption technologies that government investigators cannot break, spurred by Google and Apple’s recent decision to turn on encryption by default on Android and iPhone smartphones. It also comes just weeks after President Obama met with UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who has been a vocal opponent of encryption tools that may block government surveillance, and just days before President Obama will hold a cybersecurity summit at Stanford University where Apple CEO Tim Cook is expected to speak.

OTI’s comments focus on recounting the lessons of the 1990s policy debate sometimes called the “Crypto Wars,” where the Clinton Administration ultimately abandoned its plans for the “Clipper Chip,” a technology that would allow the government access to encrypted communications, and also loosened its restrictions on the export of strong encryption technologies. As OTI’s comments describe, despite law enforcement intelligence concerns about how encryption may frustrate some investigations, policymakers in the 90s ultimately recognized that the benefits of promoting the spread of encryption—to privacy, to security, to the U.S. technology industry, and to the growth of the Internet economy—outweighed the costs.

The following can be attributed to Danielle Kehl, OTI Policy Analyst and lead author of OTI’s comments to the Special Rapporteur:

“The same arguments that won the Crypto Wars of the 1990s—that government restrictions on the availability of unbreakable encryption tools would be bad for privacy, bad for Internet security, bad for the U.S. tech industry and the growth of the information economy, and ultimately ineffective at preventing the spread of such tools—still hold true in the twenty-first century. We wrote these comments in the hope that policymakers of today will learn from the history of the Crypto Wars of the 90s, so that we are not doomed to repeat it.”

In December of 2013, the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies—a panel of five experts commissioned by the President to make recommendations in the wake of the NSA surveillance controversy prompted by Edward Snowden—reiterated the lessons of the Crypto Wars by recommending that it should be the official policy of the US government to promote security by “(1) fully supporting and not undermining efforts to create encryption standards; (2) making clear that it will not in any way subvert, undermine, weaken, or make vulnerable generally available commercial encryption; and (3) supporting efforts to encourage the greater use of encryption technology for data in transit, at rest, in the cloud, and in storage.” OTI’s comments today urge the Special Rapporteur to make similar recommendations to all UN member countries.

The following can be attributed to Kevin Bankston, OTI’s Policy Director and also an author of yesterday’s comments:

“By the end of the original Crypto Wars, President Clinton’s White House ultimately recognized the critical importance of encryption to our security and our economy, and abandoned its attempts to force surveillance backdoors into the technology or restrict its availability. On the eve of his cybersecurity summit, we call on President Obama to similarly follow the advice of his own panel of experts, including a former White House anti-terrorism czar and a former CIA director, and pledge that the US government will continue to fully support and encourage the widespread availability of strong encryption technologies. Ultimately, encryption is one of our most important cybersecurity tools, and we can’t allow the short-sighted worries of some law enforcement officials to undermine the longer-term goal of creating a truly secure Internet, which in itself will help to prevent countless crimes.”

OTI Policy Program Associate Andi Wilson was also a co-author on yesterday’s comments to the Special Rapporteur, with additional assistance provided by OTI’s Robyn Greene, Jordan McCarthy, and Rob Morgus.

Read the full filing here (pdf).