Cyber activists from 42 countries issue open letter against software ‘backdoors’


Nearly 200 experts, companies and advocacy groups urge governments to end efforts to ‘mandate insecure encryption’ amid surveillance concerns

Amid a sustained push by world governments to undermine secure digital communications, campaigners from more than 42 countries are making a concerted push to defend encryption.

An open letter issued on Monday, three days after senior Obama administration officials huddled with Silicon Valley titans to revive a relationship damaged by revelations of mass surveillance, demanded an end to global government efforts to compel the insertion or use of software flaws in encryption protocols called “backdoors”.

“Users should have the option to use – and companies the option to provide – the strongest encryption available, including end-to-end encryption, without fear that governments will compel access to the content, metadata, or encryption keys without due process and respect for human rights,” reads the open letter, signed by 195 experts, companies and civil-society organizations.

The letter, an initiative of the digital-rights group Access Now and posted, urges governments not to “ban or otherwise limit user access to encryption in any form or otherwise prohibit the implementation or use of encryption by grade or type”.

It rejects government efforts to “mandate insecure encryption algorithms, standards, tools or technologies”.

The nearly 200 signatories include the secure-messaging company Silent Circle, Human Rights Watch, former CIA official John Kiriakou, United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye, and Guardian US columnist Trevor Timm.

US security officials, particularly FBI director James Comey, have publicly urged Silicon Valley to create a backdoor into encrypted communications that only the government can use. Their arguments have met with a wave of resistance from technologists but have received political support after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, although it remains unclear whether the attackers used strong encryption tools.

Technologists have responded that security flaws are user-neutral, incapable of distinguishing between the FBI agent seeking to stop a terrorist attack and the hacker looking to steal or deface personal data. They warn that weakening encryption protocols for surveillance will jeopardize cybersecurity, a competing priority, during a rising tide of online attacks, some state-sponsored.

“Any backdoor is a backdoor for everyone,” Apple’s Tim Cook has stated. Apple representatives attended Friday’s meeting with senior US officials.

Monday’s letter was released in a dozen countries, many of which have passed or are considering changes to their laws that activists warn permit deeper digital surveillance, often under cover of bolstering cybersecurity. A highly controversial surveillance measure long stalled in Congress, the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, passed last month after advocates included it within a must-pass spending bill.


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Credit: The Guardian