According to a piece on left-leaning kiwi blog site The Daily Blog, there’s more bad news looming for basic democratic rights. Both the Australian and New Zealand governments are considering passing new laws that would force people to hand over the keys to their encrypted communications. NZ already has some stupidly strict laws on “exporting” anything encryption-related from the country, and even publishing articles about it in academic journals requires special permission. A coalition of digital liberties groups, including InternetNZ and the NZ Council for Civil Liberties, has been defending the right to encrypt since at least 2016. A time when the debate over the technology was heating up around the world, thanks to the work of groups like Access Now. Back then, the Obama administration were saying that the US federal government would not be doing anything that weakened the digital security provided by encryption.

The problem is, encrypted communication is such an obscure thing for most people, and so far from their everyday concerns about paying the rent, keep dinner on the table, keeping the shop open, or whatever. There’s a risk that too many people will only understand why this matters too late, and start trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted. So here’s a simple way to explain it.

You have a lock box in your house. In it, you might keep some cash for emergencies. You might keep important documents like your passport when you’re not travelling, or copies of your will, or a copy of your research on your family history. You might keep something harmless but embarrassing, like some saucy Polaroid photos you took with your lover, or something weird and sentimental, like a lace doily, or half a doughnut. It’s nobody else’s business what’s in that box. You have a fundamental right to keep it private. It’s a right that’s asserted in a bunch of other human rights conventions, including Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

You don’t want anyone to see what’s in your lock box, but let’s say law enforcement officers want the key to it, because they believe it contains evidence of a crime. Traditionally, in democratic countries, the officers have to appear before a neutral third-party (like a judge) and the onus is on them to convince that person that they have a very good reason to be allowed to violate your privacy, not on you to prove that they don’t (”nothing to hide …”).

If they get permission - in the form of a judicial warrant - it only applies in this specific case, to you, to the private property they’re asking the judge for access to, in this case your lock box, and for a specific period of time. They can’t get a warrant to search anyone’s lock box. They can’t get a warrant to search anything you choose to keep private. They can’t get a warrant to violate your privacy any time they like from now on. A warrant is a temporary, specific exemption to the laws that normally protect your privacy. If law enforcement officers can just ask you for the key to your lock box, and threaten to arrest you and charge with obstruction if you say no, that’s “arbitrary interference” in your “privacy, home or correspondence”, and Article 12 says that’s something governments that respect human rights protect their people from.

An encryption key is like a digital version of the key to your lock box. Like your email or social media passphrase, it protects things you have reasons to want to keep private. In a tiny minority of cases, that might be communications about committing a crime. But in the majority of cases, they will be things you want to keep private because they are embarrassing (dick pics), or personal (love letters), or financially sensitive (online banking), or its your professional duty  (a doctor’s database of their patients’ medical records). Things that are harmless. Things that could even be harmful to people if their privacy is violated, like medical insurance companies getting access to people’s medical records, and charging higher premiums to people with unusual health problems, even though the whole point of insurance is to collect money off lots of people, so it can be paid out to those who need it.

The problem with the laws being discussed about encryption is not that they let law enforcement violate a specific person’s privacy, in specific ways, when they have good reason to think they will find evidence of a crime. The law already allows them to apply for a warrant for that. The problem is, these laws would let them search through anything that anyone chose to encrypt, any time they like. It would let them do so in secret, with no effective way for the public to hold them accountable for how they use those powers.

This is how policing works in a police state, not a democracy. Please contact your political representatives and urge them to do everything in their power to protect our privacy, by protecting our right to encrypt.

Filed September 7th, 2018 under News, security

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