Letter from NGOs re: encryption and censorship measures

Dear Ms Rudd and company representatives,

We are writing to ask you to ensure that your discussions between Home Office ministers and companies about limits to encryption and free expression online are open, transparent and take the human rights and personal security of UK citizens into account. Private, informal agreements are not consistent with open, democratic governance.

Who we are

We are a group of Non-Governmental Organisations and charities that work in the human rights and digital field. We are based in the UK and internationally.

Our Concerns

(a) Privacy and security

We are concerned about the potential for limitations to personal security that could result from technological limitations to encryption following Amber Rudd’s comments about WhatsApp.

We also note that Ms Rudd may seek to use Technical Capability Notices (TCNs) to enforce changes; and these would require secrecy. We are therefore surprised that public comments by Ms Rudd have not referenced her existing powers.

We do not believe that the TCN process is robust enough in any case, nor that it should be applied to non-UK providers, and are concerned about the precedent that may be set by companies complying with a government over requests like these.

We also question whether these measures are of any significant practical benefit in the fight against terrorism. When weighed up against the costs of such an approach, we doubt that measures against general encryption are likely to be proportionate. Hardened criminals are always going to be able to choose tools that offer encryption that is not compromised, because the mathematics behind encryption cannot be forgotten or unpublished. The very least we should have from government is evidence-based policy making.

(b) Free expression

Government requests directed to tech companies to take down content is de facto state censorship. Some requests may be entirely legitimate but the sheer volumes make us highly concerned about their validity and the accountability of the processes.

Some content may be legal, but potentially offensive or express extreme views. Co-operation therefore sets the bar for censorship much lower for government, as material that is legal can be taken down based on government will rather than transparent legal process. We need assurances that only illegal material will be sought out by government officials and taken down by tech companies.

Transparency and judicial oversight are needed over government takedown requests.

(c) Process

The Home Office needs to consult openly and fairly, and should, as much as possible, use the law rather than private, informal agreements to ensure full legal accountability and balance.

What we want

  1. These discussion must take place in as open and transparent a manner as possible. We understand that some security matters may be hard to discuss in public, but that does not mean that the entire discussion should take place in private.
  2. Include civil society, human rights and legal organisations to test approaches at the informal stage.
  3. Minutes should be published as a matter of course.
  4. Consultation processes must ultimately be opened to the public. To the extent that government is setting policy or law, it should consult with the whole public through an open process.

Thank you,

 

Jim Killock, Open Rights Group

Jo Glanville, English PEN

Gus Hosein, Privacy International

Martha Spurrier, Liberty

Cynthia Wong, Human Rights Watch

Renate Samson, Big Brother Watch

Ross Anderson, Foundation for Public Policy Research

Thomas Hughes, ARTICLE 19

Melody Patry, Index on Censorship

Sarah Clarke, PEN International

Tom Sanderson, Centre for Investigative Journalism

Rebecca Vincent, Reporters Without Borders

Nik Williams, Scottish PEN