We need more protection from government surveillance — not less

The ability to communicate securely via encryption is essential to the protection of democracy and human rights.

Joint open letter by 13 NGOs to the editor of Politico Europe in response to the Op Ed by Head of Europol & NY District Attorney on encryption, July 27, 2021

In their opinion piece “The last refuge of the criminal: Encrypted smartphones” (July 26), Catherine De Bolle, executive director of Europol, and Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., district attorney of New York County, made an extraordinary bid to undermine encryption, barely a week after the Pegasus scandal rocked the globe and exposed the perils of government surveillance facilitated by tech companies.
The headline itself will be particularly jarring to the hundreds of journalists and human rights defenders currently in detention all around the world. Their “crime”? Defending the rights of others and standing up for democracy.

In Turkey, to cite one example, many have gone to prison simply for using encrypted messaging services — an act in itself deemed criminal by the authorities. As we saw with Pegasus, Europe is no exception to this trend, with three Hungarian investigative journalists targeted.

Human rights defenders and journalists are not the only groups for whom encryption is essential. Members of the LGBTQ+ community depend on end-to-end encryption to help ensure their privacy and safety. Domestic violence survivors rely on end-to-end encryption tools to provide a secure channel to make plans and communicate with trusted individuals.

Encryption helps prevent spies, criminals and hostile governments from accessing and exploiting confidential communications; stealing personal, financial and other types of data; penetrating computer systems and databases and causing wide-scale, systemic disruptions to economies, infrastructure and security.
The claim that the authors support “strong encryption, just not unregulated encryption” is unfortunately misleading. As any technologist or engineer will confirm, communications are either end-to-end encrypted, or they are not. This is a question of computer science.

“Regulated encryption” is simply a euphemism for government backdoors into our communications. Backdoors undermine the security of communications, leaving them open and vulnerable to attacks from malevolent actors. There is no such thing as a backdoor for only the good guys. Even if there was, the Pegasus scandal is a reminder that not all governments are “good” and that “good governments” can act badly.

We agree wholeheartedly with the expressed need to combat senseless acts of violence and protect children from exploitation. But breaking encryption diminishes our ability to realize these goals. As a society we must strengthen existing approaches but also invest more expansively in child and family support and protective services.
The Pegasus scandal proved, once again, how our right to communicate securely underpins the pillars of democracy, including press freedom, the presumption of innocence, privacy and freedom of expression and association. Democracy and human rights are in need of more protection from government surveillance — not less.

Iverna McGowan
Secretary-general, Center for Democracy & Technology, Europe (CDT Europe)
Diego Naranjo
Head of policy, European Digital Rights (EDRi)
Maria Koomen
Lead, Open Governance Network for Europe
Guillermo Beltrà
Head of EU digital team, Open Society European Policy Institute (OSEPI)
Omri Preiss
Managing director, Alliance4Europe
Estelle Massé
Europe policy manager, Access Now
Cindy Cohn
Executive director, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)
Alice Stollmeyer
Executive director, Defend Democracy
Barbora Bukovská
Senior director for law and policy, ARTICLE 19
Gaelle Dusepulchre
Permanent representative to the EU, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
Andrew Anderson
Executive director, Front Line Defenders
Vanja Skoric
Progam director, European Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ECNL)

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