Apple's refusal to help the FBI unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters has reignited the debate over how much privacy we can expect in the information age. This week, the company is facing a U.S. House of Representatives committee to defend its decision to seemingly put personal privacy above national security. But the final outcome may put more on line for many—by threatening their personal security. Around the world, human rights activists, journalists, and even victims of domestic violence rely on encryption to protect them from harm.
Security experts have been warning about the dangers of giving governments the keys to back doors of electronic devices. Not only could security breaches result in sensitive information falling into the hands of hackers and criminals, but China and governments in other foreign markets will likely demand a similar workaround.
While you may not be thrilled that the NSA is reading your texts, the threat of surveillance tends to be far more pervasive in the developing world. Technologies in the global south are often "more sophisticated, pervasive and abusive than those revealed by Edward Snowden in Western countries," Human Rights lawyer Renata Avila told The Bertha Foundation.
Human Rights Activists and Lawyers
From Argentina to South Africa, governments are ramping up their efforts to track and identify dissenters in real-time, anywhere. Encryption and anonymity offer a zone of privacy to allow activists to exercise their right to free expression online. As UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye highlighted in his Report on encryption, anonymity, and the human rights framework, freedom of opinion in the digital space is the most relevant freedom for lawyers and human rights activists.
Journalists and Sources
Journalists—and their sources—also depend on encryption to ensure their security. When the French government wanted to restrict the use of encryption in 2002, Reporters without Borders countered their request, writing,
In some countries such as China, Vietnam and Tunisia, using encryption is the only option for dissidents and journalists who want to protect the content of their emails and above all to protect their lives."
Today, the Committee to Protect Journalists recommends reporters in Syria use PGP encryption to keep their sources safe.
Victims of Domestic Violence
But personal security issues aren't limited to journalist, activists, and their attorneys. Those seeking to escape domestic violence are often threatened by cyberstalking and phone-tracking malware. To protect victims' privacy, Tech Safety offers a range of resources for domestic violence programs, sexual assault crisis centers, and victim service agencies. Weakening encryption could allow perpetrators to further exploit digital security flaws.
A Dangerous Precedent
If Apple is forced to design an encryption backdoor, it could set a dangerous precedent in which governments around the world can demand that other tech firms do the same. The final decision could jeopardize the personal security of millions in the name of national—or global—security.