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29 May, 2015 17:49

​UN says encryption vital to free speech, calls on US govt to end 'backdoor' push

Data encryption is essential to free speech, as it provides the privacy and security necessary in today's digital age, a new UN report states. It calls on the US Congress to prohibit Washington from requiring companies to provide “backdoor access.”

"Encryption and anonymity, separately or together, create a zone of privacy to protect opinion and belief," says the report written by David Kaye, a special rapporteur in the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The report, which will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council next month, comes as many governments attempt to put “backdoors” in encryption software to assist law enforcement.

Kaye speaks out against such backdoors in the report, calling on the US Congress to “prohibit the Government from requiring companies to weaken product security or insert back-door access measures."

“States should avoid all measures that weaken the security that individuals may enjoy online, such as backdoors, weak encryption standards and key escrows,” the report states, adding that encryption is necessary for artists, journalists, whistleblowers, and many others.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Kaye said backdoors “result in insecurity for everyone, even if intended to be for criminal law enforcement purposes.”

READ MORE: NSA targeted Google & Samsung app stores to harvest data

It comes as the US continues to take part in an ongoing privacy debate, in an effort to balance personal rights and national security.

One side of the token is tech companies, many of which have rushed to encrypt their products following Edward Snowden's 2013 NSA revelations.

However, Obama administration officials are on the other side, and are pushing for encryption with a backdoor, or “master key,” which can be used by law enforcement.

On Wednesday, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch echoed the administration's call, stating that she has “grave concerns” about encryption being used by “people whose sworn duty is to harm Americans here and abroad.”

Speaking at a cyber warfare conference on Wednesday, NSA director Mike Rogers said encryption is “not bad,” and that it is a “fundamental part of the future.”

READ MORE: Apple co-founder says Snowden gave up his life to reveal NSA surveillance

However, he continued by asking whether it was possible to create “some mechanism” which allows governments to “access information that directly relates to the security of our respective nations” while being “mindful” that citizens' rights need to be protected.

The answer to Rogers' question, according to Kaye, is a clear-cut “no.” Kaye says that compromised encryption will simply weaken everyone's security online.

He added that those with the skills to exploit the weak points of compromised encryption would be able to easily do so – whether those people were “State or non-State, legitimate, or criminal.”

The report acknowledges the need for police and other law enforcement to access encrypted messages and other communications, but says this should be done on a “case by case” basis and should not be applied to a “mass of people.”

The report, which has been welcomed by encryption advocates, also warns against state prohibitions of anonymity online – including real-name registration, SIM card registration, or banning of anonymity tools such as Tor, adding that such requirements interfere with the freedom of expression.