Encrypted messaging is indispensable for advocacy groups that use the technology to stand up for their communities. As new government laws and regulations in countries around the world threaten to weaken encryption, advocacy groups must work together to speak out against these measures and protect the digital tools needed to hold power accountable.
Once again, proposed legislation mandating government access to encrypted messaging is making the rounds. Law enforcement agencies claim that greater oversight is needed to catch criminals online. They’re putting pressure on regulators and lawmakers to grant them access to private messages and data. But as awareness grows of government attempts to weaken encryption—and the threats they pose to digital privacy, security, and freedom of speech—the public has become increasingly vocal.
The harm caused by such regulation would be particularly pronounced for advocacy groups. They use encrypted messaging for safety and privacy when speaking up for their communities and defending human rights abuses. Advocacy groups must recognize this threat and take collective action now. If not, they risk losing the tools they need to safely and effectively do their jobs.
Encryption is a tool designed to help Internet users keep their online data and communications private and secure. It plays a critical role in protecting day-to-day digital activities like online banking, shopping, preventing theft of sensitive information in data breaches, and making sure private messages stay private.
Encrypted messaging works by scrambling information so that it can only be read by someone with the ‘key’ to open and unscramble the information. End-to-end encryption provides the strongest level of security and trust, as only the intended recipient holds the key to decrypt the message. In end-to-end encryption, no third party—including the service provider or the government—should have access to that key.
Advocacy groups, human rights defenders, community organizers, and humanitarian actors use encryption when raising public awareness of human rights violations and holding the powerful to account. Encryption also plays a vital role in creating momentum for a cause. Community members can lend their support to advocacy movements with the knowledge that their anonymity is protected.
If advocacy groups cannot use encrypted messaging, services, and platforms to engage stakeholders and share resources in confidence, they cannot defend human rights in safety. These outcomes could harm the public with communities losing their voice and human rights abuses not brought to light.
Here are four practical ways that advocacy groups use encryption:
Safely engage with community stakeholders
Members of the community including journalists, interest groups, academics, and individuals will share resources and personal information about themselves only if advocacy groups agree to protect their identity. End-to-end encryption allows advocacy groups to build a trusted relationship with their community, growing their movement while minimizing the risk to individuals.
Protect the integrity of information
Advocacy groups need to reliably signal to the community that they have shared trustworthy information. Internet protocols like HTTPS use encryption to help ensure data integrity as it passes between websites and readers. It also protects advocacy groups from censorship as it is harder for censors to block messages or access to websites if they cannot intercept the content.
Protect from attacks
There are many cases of advocacy groups having their devices and online platforms hacked and surveilled by governments and private actors (for instance, NSO Group’s spyware was used to surveil over 50,000 targets, including heads of state, activists, and journalists). Advocacy groups also face threats such as online abuse, doxxing (gathering and publishing personal information online), stalking, and in extreme cases, kidnapping, and violence.
While advocacy groups must remain alert to a myriad of digital and traditional surveillance techniques, end-to-end encryption helps increase protection for their communications from interception by third parties. While hacking and surveillance can still occur on user devices, the weakening of encryption services would make such attacks even easier and more common.
Holding governments and institutions accountable
An important component of human rights advocacy is its ability to hold people and institutions in power accountable for their decisions and actions. To do this, it is critical for advocacy groups to have digital security tools that prevent powerful entities—domestic or foreign—from accessing and/or altering advocacy groups’ research, conversations, and community databases.
When governments support end-to-end encryption, they help advocacy groups in their own nations and around the world by setting a standard for global encryption protections. When countries weaken encryption, they set a dangerous precedent that could be abused by foreign governments that lack the same robust rule-of-law standards.
Criminality is not defined uniformly and, in far too many countries, genuine human rights defenders and members of the public are persecuted and harassed by the authorities. As an example, these past few months have seen Afghan women deleting their messaging history and school records over the fear that something as innocuous as attending school will once again be criminalized. Encryption helps to add a layer of protection to activities that are unjustly criminalized, particularly for advocacy groups.
Law enforcement and security agencies regularly request app and platform providers to build in encryption backdoors so they can access encrypted private messages, arguing that it is necessary for anti-terrorist and child protection efforts. Despite positive intentions, these backdoors put the public and specific communities, such as advocacy groups, at disproportionate risk. Backdoors create points of weakness that bad actors, including criminals and hostile governments, can exploit to gain entry. There is no such thing as a digital lock that only “good guys” can open and others cannot.
Legislation that breaks or limits the use of encrypted messaging will muzzle advocacy groups. They’ll lose a critical layer of protection needed to do their work effectively and safely. The advocacy community must speak up now to protect encryption—before it’s too late.