May 29, 2015 · 2 minutes

The United States is once again at odds with the United Nations over the country's efforts to undermine encryption tools, curtail anonymity, and engage in wanton spying.

A report from special rapporteur David Kaye argues against all those endeavors, but it's particularly focused on how efforts to subvert the security of encrypted information threatens free expression and the unimpeded flow of information.

Kaye writes in the report that encryption and anonymity "create a zone of privacy to protect opinion and belief," thereby allowing journalists, artists, and others to express themselves without fearing backlash from their governments.

That point is driven home in the report's conclusion:

The use of encryption and anonymity tools and better digital literacy should be encouraged. The Special Rapporteur, recognizing that the value of encryption and anonymity tools depends on their widespread adoption, encourages States, civil society organizations and corporations to engage in a campaign to bring encryption by design and default to users around the world and, where necessary, to ensure that users at risk be provided the tools to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression securely.
The report also focuses on schemes from the United Kingdom and the US to force tech companies to include backdoors in their products, thus giving these governments unfettered access to what consumers believe is private data.

Here's some of what Kaye had to write about that issue:

[R]equiring encryption back-door access, even if for legitimate purposes, threatens the privacy necessary to the unencumbered exercise of the right to freedom of expression. Back-door access has practical limitations; the exploitation of intentional weaknesses could render encrypted content susceptible to attack, even if access is provided with the sole intention of allowing government or judicial control.
These points have been made before. The UN said last year that surveillance programs undermine the freedom of expression and passed a resolution that recognized privacy, which is also harmed by the programs, as a human right. This isn't even the only report from a UN special rapporteur that defends basic encryption and privacy tools. Ben Emmerson argued something similar in a special report published over a month before the UN passed that resolution:
The prevention and suppression of terrorism is a public interest imperative of the highest importance and may in principle form the basis of an arguable justification for mass surveillance of the internet. However, the technical reach of the programmes currently in operation is so wide that they could be compatible with article 17 of the covenant only if relevant States are in a position to justify as proportionate the systematic interference with the internet privacy rights of a potentially unlimited number of innocent people located in any part of the world. Bulk access technology is indiscriminately corrosive of online privacy and impinges on the very essence of the guaranteed by article 17.
The UN has shown time and again that it believes privacy, especially as it relates to the freedom of expression, is a basic right. It also believes encryption can help protect those basic rights and should be encouraged, not subverted.

When will the US agree?

[illustration by Brad Jonas]