A vital guide to the Canadian encryption debate

Canada's two leading digital rights groups, CIPPIC (previously) and Citizen Lab (previously) have issued a joint report called Shining a Light on the Encryption Debate: A Canadian Field Guide , and every Canadian should read it.

The decades-old fight over access to working cryptography has reached a new global peak, from China to the UK and beyond, with states seeking to reconcile their need to prevent computer-based attacks on privacy, infrastructure, trade secrets, and national security target with their desire to spy on their adversaries: opposition political figures, agents of other governments, criminals and nihilistic griefers.

The thing is, you can still have national security even without banning working crypto: police can use metadata surveillance, physical surveillance, even hidden cameras and hardware implants to target their adversaries. But you can't have national security without working crypto: crypto is the system that allows us to authenticate software updates for power plants and pacemakers; it's what protects access to medical and financial records; it's what allows families to converse in private. There is no "slightly broken" crypto that works when bad guys are attacking it but fails when the police need it to.

The report is rich with data: real-world instances in which the state was able to attain its legitimate objectives without breaking crypto; real-world instances in which the failure of crypto endangers the national Canadian interest. It's plain-language and nontechnical, and if your MP doesn't read it, they haven't earned your vote.

Access to strong, uncompromised encryption technology serves critical public interest objectives. Encryption is intimately connected to the constitutional protections guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as those rights enshrined in international human rights law. In particular, encryption enables the right to privacy, the right to freedom of expression, and related rights to freedom of opinion and belief. In an era where signals intelligence agencies operate with minimal restrictions on their foreign facing activities, encryption remains one of the few practical limits on mass surveillance. Encryption also helps to guarantee privacy in our personal lives, shielding individuals from abusive partners, exploitative employers, and online harassment. The mere awareness of mass surveillance exerts a significant chilling effect on freedom of expression. Vulnerable and marginalized groups are both disproportionately subject to state scrutiny, and may be particularly vulnerable to these chilling effects. Democracies pay a particularly high price when minority voices and dissenting views are pressured to self-censor or refrain from participating in public life. The same is true when human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, and others whose work demands the ability to call attention to injustice, often at some personal risk, are deterred from leveraging digital networks in pursuit of their activities. Unrestricted public access to reliable encryption technology can help to shield individuals from these threats. Efforts to undermine the security of encryption in order to facilitate state access, by contrast, are likely to magnify these risks. Uncompromised encryption systems can thus foster the security necessary for meaningful inclusion, democratic engagement, and equal access in the digital sphere.

The nexus between strong encryption and free expression is particularly strong. For example, encryption is an integral component of anonymity and censorship circumvention tools. Encryption also limits the effectiveness of automated content filtering systems used by states to control access to news, political speech, cultural expression, health information, and art. Similarly, a free press depends on the ability to receive documents securely and to communicate anonymously with sources. In many parts of the world, the physical safety of individuals relies on access to secure communications technology. This may be particularly true for political dissidents, human rights workers, and journalists. In authoritarian countries and conflict zones, access to effective encryption tools can sometimes mark the difference between safety and imprisonment.

Access to strong, uncompromised encryption technology is also critical to the economy. In a technological environment marked by high financial stakes, deep interdependence, and extraordinary complexity, ensuring digital security is of critical importance and extremely difficult. Encryption helps to ensure the security of financial transactions and preserves public trust in the digital marketplace. From sensitive financial information to dating sites to health records, technology companies hold the key to the most intimate details of our lives. The cost of a security breach, theft, or loss of customer or corporate data can have devastating impacts for both private sector interests and individuals' rights. Weakening the very systems that protect against these threats in order to facilitate government access would constitute irresponsible policymaking. Access to strong encryption encourages consumer confidence that the technology they use is safe, and that the companies they entrust with their data will not be improperly deputized by the state.

Shining a Light on the Encryption Debate: A Canadian Field Guide [Lex Gill, Tamir Israel, and Christopher Parsons/Citizen Lab and CIPPIC]