Protecting encryption is about protecting democracy

June 27, 2019
To defeat attacks on encryption, we need to talk about technical topics in accessible ways.

Lawyer, writer and digital rights activist Lizzie O’Shea has been named a 2018 Human Rights Hero by Access Now for her leading role in highlighting, analysing and protesting expansive surveillance laws in Australia. Below is an edited version of her acceptance speech on June 11.


Thanks so much to Access Now for this wonderful award. It’s such a great initiative to support activists in the field doing important work. Awards usually go to famous people at the top of their fields, and the challenging activist work of mobilising people and community building is rarely acknowledged. I feel honoured, especially alongside so many other wonderful activists.

I also wish to acknowledge that my work on this campaign was not a solo effort; I accept it on behalf of my colleagues at Digital Rights Watch, as well as colleagues in many other civil society organisations in Australia: Blueprint for Free Speech, Electronic Frontiers Australia, the Australian Privacy Foundation, Future Wise, the Human Rights Law Centre and GetUp!

Technological advancement is not just about intelligent design, clever cryptography or brilliant coding; it’s also a function of power. To make technology work for people, we need to take this power back and demand that the development of technology involve social, political and ethical considerations. 

Just because technology does certain things now doesn’t mean it couldn’t do them better. And just because technology gives us the power to do something does not mean that we should. These tensions are not simply technological, they are political.

Protecting encryption is about protecting democracy; it is about shifting power away from states and companies, and towards people.

With that framing I wanted to offer some reflections on the campaign to defend encryption in Australia.

Australia is the only Western democracy without a bill of rights and it is an enthusiastic member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. The government thinks we have a special role to play in advancing the cause of the surveillance state. 

So we were not surprised when Australia was the place that the most powerful intelligence agencies in the world sought to attack encryption.

Australia has been a vanguard for oppressive laws. Parliament has introduced a mandatory data retention regime, a suite of expansive powers for national security agencies and — most troubling of all — sweeping powers that allow government agencies to force companies to break encryption, without a warrant or any meaningful accountability process.

Where we have gone, others will soon follow. So what lessons can we learn from this?

To defeat attacks on encryption, we need to talk about technical topics in accessible ways. 

So, what is encryption? Encryption is a way of making communications secret, to ensure the content is known only by the sender and the intended recipient. Senders and recipients might be individual citizens, but they might also be any number of other people and things.

Encryption is not just about maths or cryptography, it is about the security of our digital infrastructure. Our healthcare system, our energy grid, our banking system, our public transport services, they all rely on encryption to ensure that the wrong people can’t get access to them as information moves about. 

It’s not that encryption is a good source of protection, it’s one of the only lines of defence we have against criminal behaviour and state-sponsored hacking. When we compromise its strength, we put all of those systems at risk.

By framing the defence of encryption in accessible ways, it undermines the official narrative. Politicians talked about how breaking encryption was necessary to protect us from terrorism and serious crimes. But law enforcement agencies already have lots of powers at their disposal to do this. Giving them more powers without accountability risks them being misused. 

Moreover, it ignores the incredible danger posed to the security of our digital infrastructure when we weaken encryption. Even if a tool to break encryption is created for a legitimate purpose, it can be used for any purpose. 

We can start to show how everyone has a stake in defending encryption, not as an obstacle to fighting criminal behaviour but as a source of protection against it.

We need to explain how encryption is important for journalists and whistleblowers, but also not just for them. The people who need encryption are patients in the healthcare system, users of public transport, and anyone who relies on the energy grid or pays for things online. 

In Australia, we talked to unions, welfare organisations, health charities and human rights lawyers, as well as technologists, cryptographers and coders. Civil society has a unique role to play by finding diverse allies from across the political spectrum. Industry can help us do this, but they cannot do it without us.

Our job is to challenge the official narrative and change the calculus in the minds of elected decision makers.

In seeking to break encryption, government agencies prioritise their own interests over those of the citizen they are supposed to protect. They want to create technical tools they can stockpile as an arsenal of digital weapons to use against their enemies (whoever they may be). 

But this is like stockpiling weapons while claiming you are preparing for peace. It’s not possible. 

Activists are the people who will beat these digital swords into networked ploughshares. We were not successful in Australia, but we did manage, for a brief moment, to break the bipartisan consensus on national security. That may sound small, but it’s not. 

For the last 20 years, the majority of politicians have waved through reforms that affect national security. Digital Rights Watch collected 15,000 submissions from the public on encryption laws, in a world in which we are told people don’t care about privacy and don’t understand encryption. 

It’s a huge step forward that cracks have appeared between the surveillance state and politicians. Our job is to turn those cracks into chasms — to let the light in — so that lawmakers remember they work for us.

In recent days we have seen raids on several journalists who have been reporting on surveillance agencies seeking greater powers and leaks about war crimes committed by Australian troops. This is an alarming development that signifies a turn towards authoritarianism.

As keen observers of the surveillance state, digital rights activists are not surprised that agencies would use powers to protect themselves rather than democratic values like freedom of the press. 

In fact, we are ready: to show up with our knowledge, credibility and strategic alliances to shine a light on how we got here and illuminate the path to fixing it.

We may have lost this battle, but the war has only just begun. German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote about how revolutionary movements are often paved with thunderous defeats. "Where would we be today without those `defeats'", she wrote, "from which we draw historical experience, understanding, power and idealism?".

She concluded that we cannot do without any of them because "each one contributes to our strength and understanding".

It is wonderful to be here to tell you about our historical experience and, in doing so, contribute to our common strength, collective understanding and united idealism, so we can win next time.

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