In the wake of the massacre of journalists in Paris last year, the issue of freedom of speech, and freedoms to speak on the Internet, has risen to the fore. People think that they are protected when they speak online, whether they are protesting an issue or supporting a government stance. However, the UN has declared that weak encryption is damaging user’s ability to protect themselves, and may also be undermining freedoms, for example the freedom of speech.
As we discussed in 2011, technology plays a vital role in human rights today, both in the monitoring of human rights violations and in protecting. However, four years later, there are still many serious issues with computer network security, and it is not just hackers that are a threat to privacy.
Frank La Rue’s Report
The report to the UN was made by Frank La Rue, a free speech watchdog for the UN, with the official title of ‘Special Rapporteur on promotions and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression’. He has already made a report, in 2011, calling upon countries to protect the rights of free speech, and in particular the right of individuals to protect themselves online. This report goes even further, pointing out that restrictions on encryption software are threatening free speech. The Rapporteur urged countries to practice greater freedoms of expression, as opposed to implementing restrictions.
What restrictions are in place?
Countries across the globe handle individuals’ use of the Internet differently. In some countries, such as Italy, it is necessary to have ID before using cybercafes, and any transactions on these public systems is recorded and preserved. ID and addresses are often required for customers buying mobile phones or SIM cards.
Even some apparently encrypted networks are allegedly no longer private, with ‘back doors’ placed in encryption software in order to allow non-authorised and government staff to access data.
What La Rue has recommended
In his most recent report, La Rue suggests that the tools designed to allow governments to view encrypted text should be removed. Encryption tools are essential, he stated, because the current back-door system has allowed not only governments, but also businesses and thieves, as well as those posing a threat to individuals to access information through this hole in the encryption system.
La Rue says that, without encryption protection, individuals will not be able to explore the basic elements of their identity, including sexuality, roots and history, religion and gender. The encryption software is designed to shield users, and allows them to display opinions against the current government or police force, which is vital in a ‘hostile political, social, religious and legal’ environment.
His report makes it clear that encryption has an important place within modern Internet use, declaring that individual users have to be free to make use of encryption technology in order to protect themselves against governments, and that these same governments should not be allowed to interfere with their use of this software.
Businesses have become increasingly concerned about their IT security in recent years and many have turned to professional IT service providers, such as Mustard IT, to test and secure their networks.
States should also not require that companies provide encryption keys or encryption access. Furthermore, the state should not obtain information on individuals, and nor should it demand that such information be kept by encryption companies for the purposes of surveillance.
At a time when more governments than ever are pushing for surveillance legislation, including the Conservative government of the UK, La Rue’s words could prove to be very important.