December 2019

Re-factoring the Crypto Debate

"Broken Key" CC-BY-NC unrequitedlife on flickr

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is hosting a working group to move the crypto debate forward by adding two valuable dimensions to the conversation. The WG added use cases to more capture concerns of various stakeholders and defined its technical scope, selecting a specific point to engage in this debate (around the ability to break encryption on mobile devices under the physical control of national law enforcement, but not in-transit or, theoretically, remote device access).

That said, I find the report and its use cases dangerously US-centric; ignoring the role of authoritarian states and how even this tightly scoped debate would put human rights defenders, activists, and advocates for change in these places at risk. The use cases include a wide variety, but exclude the use cases of authoritarian, state-level actors and also exclude activists who will be targeted with technologies that break end to end encryption guarantees.

We need to look beyond markets to how crypto regulation advances or undermines long-term goals around democracy and human rights around the world. "Exceptional Access" or however we frame it will be used against human rights defenders - either directly, or through pressure on tech platforms to provide equivalent access to states we might consider authoritarian. It may be a bitter pill for the law enforcement groups who seem themselves as the good guys fighting human trafficking and other horrible crimes; but promoting e2ee to encourage and protect opening civil spaces, more safely confronting corruption, and sustaining democracy could be a bigger win on a long-term, global level.