Recently, there’s been a lot of activity around encryption, bitcoin and the connection between financial and personal liberty and digital rights and tools. As protest movements emerge around the world, there are also moves to create backdoors into encryption and to weaken the same technologies that are underpinning and supporting meaningful dissent from Hong Kong to Nigeria.
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) director Cindy Cohn has been at the forefront of fighting for digital rights, both as a lawyer and advocate on important Constitutional cases. Here’s her thoughts on what it means to lead a digital rights advocacy group in a volatile time where digital rights are under threat.
Question 1: What were your challenge areas in 2020, and what are some of the immediate priorities that have come up during our current time?
We set three challenge areas for the year 2020, but I would say that we’ve done a lot on them, there have been intervening events.
Our three challenge areas for 2020 were the rise of public-private partnerships between the police and private companies for surveillance purposes, the need to really articulate the role of the public interest Internet, especially in Europe to try to make sure that rules that get passed because Europe is mad at Facebook don’t have bad effects on Facebook competitors or little businesses and also things like the Internet Archive and Wikimedia that are very much public interest pieces of Internet infrastructure.
And then the third [area] was to talk about the problems of content moderation and how the content moderation strategies of big tech are troubling and also causing these collateral effects like attacks on end-to-end encryption.
Those were the three things we started out with. Of course, the two big things that intervened and one small thing are, well, one big thing is COVID, of course — and so we spent a lot of time on working on how to think about the kinds of tracking applications that are coming out on COVID — soon we’ll be talking about immunity passports […], how to think about those things and how to weigh the tradeoffs.
The second big thing that happened was the big racial justice movement and police violence against people of color and the response — and that has led us to really refresh and push out alot of the work that we do around protecting yourself in protests, as well as raise some concern on the use of facial recognition technologies and the impact they have on political protests — and then the third thing is the election in the United States.
Question 2: What is going on with end-to-end encryption? Should there be backdoors?
There’s probably a much more erudite version of this on the EFF website. The general framing of this, I try to frame it for people who may not be in the thick of it because it can feel really technical.
Imagine a world in which the local police come around and knock on your door and say “there’s crime around here, and some of it is really serious crime, so what we want you to do is to make sure that your door’s not locked because if you’re a criminal, we want to be able to come in and catch you”, and most people would get that’s a really insane way to go about law enforcement because, first of all, if there’s crime about, you want to be more secure not less secure, and why are the cops treating me like I’m a potential defendant as opposed to the person who needs to be protected?
These two things would come up for me immediately and I think they would for most people. Law enforcement isn’t doing their job right if the way that they’re trying to do…