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Read This Before You Rail Against Encryption

We have seen considerable discussion about the potential use of encryption by terrorists and criminals in the wake of the devastating attacks by Daesh (ISIS) in Paris. While it appears from initial reports that the perpetrators of this attack did not encrypt their communications, some have called for new legal limits on encryption, looking for mandatory surveillance backdoors into encrypted products or even outright bans on any encryption that the government can’t penetrate.

These calls are misguided. We’ve had this debate before in the U.S., and the consensus amongst experts then, as it is now, was that giving government investigators special access to encrypted data is technically impossible to do without seriously undermining our cybersecurity against other threats, while also undermining the U.S. tech economy, and threatening human rights across the globe. While New America’s Open Technology Institute has commented extensively on the renewed debate around encryption since the Paris attacks (in Time, and the Washington Post, among others), we have also been publishing extensive research and analysis on the issue since it first flared up last year. Below is a curated selection of some of that work, to help inform the latest iteration of this ongoing controversy.

The #Cryptodebate is Coming, Are You Prepared?

November 2014

This post introduces readers to the debate that was sparked when Apple and Google announced they would turn on encryption by default on their smartphones, and includes a bibliography of news stories and analysis on the issue, in anticipation of an OTI-sponsored live debate event.

Encryption 101

February 2015

In an op-ed for Slate’s Future Tense, OTI fellow Danielle Kehl gives a brief non-technical introduction to encryption. It covers what encryption is, how the average consumer uses it, and where it stands today.

West Coast vs. East Coast

February 2015

In this Slate article, OTI Director Director Kevin Bankston describes the growing war of words between Silicon Valley and Washington over the encryption issue, which was exemplified by an argument that broke out between a top tech company’s chief security officer and the head of the NSA at New America’s annual cybersecurity conference.

The Human Rights Benefits of Encryption

March 2015

OTI’s Danielle Kehl and Andi Wilson outline the critical role that encryption plays when it comes to protecting human rights around the world, boiling down comments that OTI submitted to the United Nations, which were later cited in a key report on encryption by the U.N.’s top expert on free expression.

Ten Reason Why Encryption Backdoor Mandates Are A Bad Idea

April 2015

This synopsis of Kevin Bankston’s April 2015 testimony before Congress on “Encryption Technology and Possible U.S. Policy Responses” provides a top ten list of the reasons why encryption backdoors put everyone at risk; this post summarizes the hearing, where some of the strongest arguments against backdoors came from the lawmakers themselves.

Massive Coalition of Security Experts, Tech Companies and Privacy Advocates Presses Obama To Oppose Surveillance Backdoors

May 2015

As the crypto debate peaked over the summer, OTI organized a huge coalition to make its case directly to the President, arguing in a joint letter that the White House must reject the idea of encryption backdoors as a threat to cybersecurity, economic security, and human rights. The White House has since decided that it will not be seeking legislation on the encryption issue.

The Lessons of the Crypto Wars

June 2015

Danielle Kehl outlines how many of the arguments against encryption were already refuted during the first big policy fight over encryption in the 1990s, in this preview of the OTI policy paper Doomed to Repeat History? Lessons from the Crypto Wars of the 1990s.

It’s Time to End the ‘Debate’ On Encryption Backdoors

July 2015

Blogging for Just Security, Kevin Bankston surveys the overwhelming consensus of the experts that crypto backdoors would threaten digital security, hurt the U.S. economy, and undermine human rights, and contrasts that consensus with the FBI’s failure to provide any compelling examples of how encryption has frustrated its investigations.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

August 2015

In another Slate Future Tense editorial, OTI’s Kevin Bankston looks at existing data and runs the numbers to conclude that smartphone encryption will actually stop more crimes than it enables, thereby helping law enforcement more than it will hurt them.

Why We Should Not Fear A World of ‘Universal Encryption’

September 2015

In an op-ed for Christian Science Monitor’s Passcode, Kevin Bankston refutes FBI Director Comey’s claim that we are moving toward a dystopian world of “universal encryption” where all of the evidence needed by law enforcement is locked behind unbreakable digital walls, explaining how, rather than “going dark” because of encryption, governments are in fact benefiting from a Golden Age of surveillance.