Citizen Lab Senior Legal Researcher Sarah McKune wrote an article in Just Security, entitled “Encryption, Anonymity and the Right to Science,” in which McKune calls for the encryption and anonymity debate to address the aspects of human rights that are unique to digital space. She emphasizes the need to recognize that the ability to do science is inextricably linked to the freedom of expression and privacy rights, amongst other human rights principles.

McKune explains that recent calls for anti-anonymity and anti-encryption warrant new thinking about digital rights. This is particularly important in order to avoid the undermining of individuals’ digital security rights. She writes that security officials worldwide often argue “that encryption and anonymity could stymie law enforcement and intelligence agency investigations into terrorists and criminals. They claim the answer to this threat lies in maintaining governments’ ability to access intelligible digital communications data and content, including through cooperation from telecommunications companies.”

McKune goes on to cite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which both lay out the “right to science,” and the associated benefits of scientific progress. She adds: “Encryption and anonymity tools derive from scientific process and progress, and their use to defend free expression and privacy merits protection under the ICESCR. Encryption is fundamentally based on mathematics, while anonymity software such as Tor is designed as a circuit of encrypted connections through relays on the network.” In this sense, scientific tools positively impact the digital security of the public, and thus are benefits of scientific progress to which individuals have rights.

McKune goes on to flesh out what the “right to science” is, focusing on how it relates to scientific research. The freedom to undertake scientific research is protected by section 15(3) of the ICESCR, and she explains that security researchers who develop protection from digital threats also need freedom to do their work. Conversely, though technology can bolster human rights, it must be curbed in instances where it is used to violate rights. McKune raises concerns with the fact that technologies capable of human rights violations are often patented, such as Hacking Team‘s patent application for a network injection tool. She calls for patent authorities to independently assess, and reject patent applications for technology if it is likely to be used to threaten human rights.

In her closing remarks, McKune notes that further discussion on the “right to science” is necessary to determine the freedoms that it entails.

Read the full article.

A congressional hearing on the topic of encryption technology and potential U.S policy responses was held on April 29, 2015, as part of a subcommittee on Information Technology. The hearing considered whether greater privacy and data security measures on technology products will hinder the investigatory powers of law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI. Watch a video recording of the hearing.