Data encryption: why it’s vital for migrants and their defenders

Michael Traitov – Adobe Stock

Data encryption is a process that protects the integrity and privacy of our stored digital information (on a phone or cloud) and our moving data (such as chat messages). While being crucial for the safety and privacy of our communication, and a democratic society overall, data encryption has been increasingly challenged in the name of fighting crime.

In the aftermath of the 2015 and 2016 terrorist attacks in Belgium and France, national law enforcement agencies and Europol notably pushed the EU and its member states to create so-called ‘backdoors’ to encryption that would grant access to protected devices and messages.

More recently, the European Commission proposal for a regulation to prevent and combat child sexual abuse has introduced a series of encryption-weakening measures aimed to stop the dissemination of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) online. As it stands, measures likely to be put into place if the proposal becomes law include ‘client-side scanning’, a technology that allows digital platforms and law enforcement to check messages against a database for ‘censurable’ content, before they are encrypted and sent.

‘Backdoors’ such as ‘client-side scanning’ make it possible for state and non-state actors – inside and outside the EU’s borders – to access our data en masse. As security technologist and Harvard Lecturer Bruce Schneier has noted, data encryption is a tool “uniquely suited to protect against bulk surveillance”. The prospect of potential mass surveillance of our online activities is especially worrying for marginalised and racialised groups, who are already disproportionately targeted by data-driven policing and surveillance in Europe, and for whom it is more difficult to claim the data protection rights they are entitled to. In many situations, these groups depend on encrypted digital communications services to keep themselves and others virtually as well as physically safe.

It is crucial that child protection is addressed at the European level. However, there are some issues that arise concerning the proposed Commission measures concerning CSAM online. There may be potential unintended harms against survivors of child abuse who rely on confidential communications to find help and report their abuse. These legislative changes may furthermore undermine encryption, and consequently online safety, in Europe and beyond, with devastating consequences for the work of human and migrant rights defenders.

Advocates have also challenged the idea that the intended measures will work at all, given the likelihood that perpetrators will switch to more ‘obscure’ platforms and the high error rates associated with detection measures, which mean law enforcement authorities investigating online child sexual abuse will have to devote limited resources to sift through mountains of potentially incorrectly flagged messages.

Chat services may keep asylum seekers’ sensitive communications with their lawyers private, and migrants’ contact with family and friends abroad, who are living under repressive regimes, safe. Customised apps allow survivors of gender-based violence, LGBTQI+ and undocumented people to access remote support services and (mental) health care without facing stigma or risking detention and deportation. Encrypted devices and clouds can protect migrants’ data when their phones are seized by border police upon entering the EU. They also ensure the integrity of digital evidence of abuse, if ever used in court by survivors of violence.

Those who defend the rights of vulnerable individuals, and journalists who expose the injustices they face, also depend on encryption technology to do their work. As humanitarian assistance to migrants and acts of solidarity across Europe are increasingly met with suspicion and criminalisation by European governments, human rights defenders use encryption to keep evidence of rights abuses safely stored, and communications with victims private. Activists with large social media followings also employ encrypted authentication to protect their accounts from being compromised by attacks. Journalists rely on encryption to safely connect with and protect their sources.

Online safety is crucial for a democratic society. It is also vital for marginalised people and those, like journalists and human rights defenders, working in spaces where the ability to denounce rights violations is already curtailed. Data encryption is a fundamental element of a safe online environment and should not be sacrificed in favour of “tough-on-crime” responses to societal issues that require holistic, victim-centred approaches.