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UN report: Encryption crucial for human rights

UN report: Encryption crucial for human rights
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A United Nations report released Thursday argues that strong encryption is fundamental to exercising basic human rights.

“Encryption and anonymity enable individuals to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age and, as such, deserve strong protection,” says the report, from the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

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The international group is releasing the report as the U.S. and other governments debate methods that would give law enforcement agencies guaranteed access to encrypted data.

Special rapporteur David Kaye authored the report, which is strongly worded in its opposition to intentional access points built into encryption, or "backdoors."

“In the contemporary technological environment, intentionally compromising encryption, even for arguably legitimate purposes, weakens everyone’s security online,” the report says.

“States should avoid all measures that weaken the security that individuals may enjoy online, such as backdoors, weak encryption standards and key escrows,” it adds. A key escrow is when a third party holds onto an encryption “key, the information needed to decrypt data.

The report even called on Congress to consider the Secure Data Act, a bill that would ban the government from forcing companies to build backdoors into their encryption.

The FBI and National Security Agency (NSA) have been battling technologists, Silicon Valley, and a vocal contingent of lawmakers over encryption standards.

Federal officials argue companies should have a method to decrypt data if it’s needed for a criminal or national security investigation. Companies counter that such a decryption method would create inherently vulnerable encryption.

"I certainly have great respect for those that would argue that the most important thing is to ensure the privacy of our citizens and we shouldn’t allow any means for the government to access information,” NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers said during a speech in Estonia on Wednesday, according to reports.

“I would argue that's not in the nation’s best long term interest, that we’ve got to create some structure that should enable us to do that, mindful that it has to be done in a legal way and mindful that it shouldn't be something arbitrary,” he continued.

The U.N. report, while decrying backdoors, does give some credence to the concept of “court-ordered decryption.”

“Court-ordered decryption, subject to domestic and international law, may only be permissible when it results from transparent and publicly accessible laws applied solely on a targeted, case-by-case basis to individuals (i.e., not to a mass of people) and subject to judicial warrant and the protection of due process rights of individuals,” it says.

The report does not explain exactly how a company would decrypt its data, though. Companies such as Apple and Google have encryption in place that they say locks even them out.

The White House is expected to release a report soon detailing several options for law enforcement to bypass encryption and access data during investigations.