Access to strong encryption technology is integral to the defense of human rights in the twenty-first century. This technology is also essential for securing digital transactions, ensuring public safety, and protecting national security interests. Yet many state agencies have continued to argue that encryption poses an unacceptable barrier to their investigative and intelligence-gathering activities. In response, some governments have called for limits on the public availability and use of secure, uncompromised encryption technology.

Shining a Light on the Encryption Debate: A Canadian Field Guide — co-authored by the Citizen Lab and the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) — examines the parameters of this debate, paying particular attention to the Canadian context. It provides critical insight and analysis for policymakers, legal professionals, academics, journalists, and advocates who are trying to navigate the complex implications of these technologies.

Proposed policy responses to the challenges raised by encryption are sometimes rooted in technical misunderstandings or overconfident rhetoric rather than an accurate view of the technology. Section One provides a brief primer on key technical principles and concepts associated with encryption in the service of improving policy outcomes and enhancing technical literacy. In particular, we review the distinction between encryption at rest and in transit, the difference between symmetric and asymmetric encryption systems, the issue of end-to-end encryption, and the concept of forward secrecy. We also identify some of the limits of encryption in restricting the investigative or intelligence-gathering objectives of the state, including in particular the relationship between encryption and metadata.

Section Two explains how access to strong, uncompromised encryption technology serves critical public interest objectives. Encryption is intimately connected to the constitutional protections guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as those rights enshrined in international human rights law. In particular, encryption enables the right to privacy, the right to freedom of expression, and related rights to freedom of opinion and belief. In an era where signals intelligence agencies operate with minimal restrictions on their foreign facing activities, encryption remains one of the few practical limits on mass surveillance. Encryption also helps to guarantee privacy in our personal lives, shielding individuals from abusive partners, exploitative employers, and online harassment. The mere awareness of mass surveillance exerts a significant chilling effect on freedom of expression. Vulnerable and marginalized groups are both disproportionately subject to state scrutiny and may be particularly vulnerable to these chilling effects. Democracies pay a particularly high price when minority voices and dissenting views are pressured to self-censor or refrain from participating in public life. The same is true when human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, and others whose work demands the ability to call attention to injustice, often at some personal risk, are deterred from leveraging digital networks in pursuit of their activities. Unrestricted public access to reliable encryption technology can help to shield individuals from these threats. Efforts to undermine the security of encryption in order to facilitate state access, by contrast, are likely to magnify these risks. Uncompromised encryption systems can thus foster the security necessary for meaningful inclusion, democratic engagement, and equal access in the digital sphere.

Section Three explores the history of encryption policy across four somewhat distinct eras, with a focus on Canada to the extent the Canadian government played an active role in addressing encryption. The first era is characterized by the efforts of intelligence agencies such as the United States National Security Agency (NSA) to limit the public availability of secure encryption technology. In the second era of the 1990s, encryption emerged as a vital tool for securing electronic trust on the emerging web. In the third era—between 2000 and 2010—the development and proliferation of strong encryption technology in Canada, the United States, and Europe progressed relatively unimpeded. The fourth era encompasses from 2011 to the present day where calls to compromise, weaken, and restrict access to encryption technology have steadily reemerged.

Section Four reviews the broad spectrum of legal and policy responses to government agencies’ perceived encryption “problem,” including historical examples, international case studies, and present-day proposals. The section provides an overview of factors which may help to evaluate these measures in context. In particular, it emphasizes questions related to: (1) whether the proposed measure is truly targeted and avoids collateral or systemic impacts on uninvolved parties; (2) whether there is an element of conscription or compelled participation which raises an issue of self-incrimination or unfairly impacts the interests of a third party; and (3) whether, in considering all the factors, the response remains both truly necessary and truly proportionate. The analysis of policy measures in this sections proceeds in three categories. The first category includes measures designed to limit the broad public availability of effective encryption tools. The second category reviews measures that are directed at intermediaries and service providers. The third category focuses on efforts that target specific encrypted devices, accounts, or individuals.

Section Five examines the necessity of proposed responses to the encryption “problem.” A holistic and contextual analysis of the encryption debate makes clear that the investigative and intelligence costs imposed by unrestricted public access to strong encryption technology are often overstated. At the same time, the risks associated with government proposals to compromise encryption in order to ensure greater ease of access for state agencies are often grossly understated. When weighed against the profound costs to human rights, the economy, consumer trust, public safety, and national security, such measures will rarely—if ever—be proportionate and almost always constitute an irresponsible approach to encryption policy. In light of this, rather than finding ways to undermine encryption, the Government of Canada should make efforts to encourage the development and adoption of strong and uncompromised technology.

Read the full report here