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End-to-end encryption’s central role in modern self-defense

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A tunnel made of ones and zeroes.

A number of course-altering US Supreme Court decisions last month—including the reversal of a constitutional right to abortion and the overturning of a century-old limit on certain firearms permits—have activists and average Americans around the country anticipating the fallout for rights and privacy as abortion “trigger laws,” expanded access to concealed carry permits, and other regulations are expected to take effect in some states. And as people seeking abortions scramble to protect their digital privacy and researchers plumb the relationship between abortion speech and tech regulations, encryption proponents have a clear message: Access to end-to-end encrypted services in the US is more important than ever.

Studies, including those commissioned by tech giants like Meta, have repeatedly and definitively shown that access to encrypted communications is a human rights issue in the digital age. End-to-end encryption makes your messages, phone calls, and video chats unintelligible everywhere except on the devices involved in the conversations, so snoops and interlopers can’t access what you’re saying—and neither can the company that offers the platform. As the legal climate in the US evolves, people who once thought they had nothing to hide may realize that era is now over.

“There are plenty of people in the US for whom it has always been true that the state wasn’t really helping them and was mostly harming them,” says Riana Pfefferkorn, a research scholar at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “But for those who are now losing faith in traditional institutions of government, it provides room for them to say, ‘OK, what technologies exist for taking back some control?’”

Over the past decades, law enforcement officials around the world have increasingly marked encryption as a hindrance to investigations and, therefore, a threat. The US Department of Justice and other agencies worldwide have campaigned to undermine encryption features with backdoors or make it economically infeasible for companies to offer the protection. While it is important to prevent violence and prosecute activity like the distribution of child sexual abuse materials, researchers consistently note that criminals will deploy and use encryption to protect their data whether the tools are legal or not—as has been the case with terrorist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic state group.

Moxie Marlinkspike, the cryptographer who founded the open source, end-to-end encrypted messaging service Signal, explored the question of criminality and access to secure communications in a blog post nearly 10 years ago. “Police already abuse the immense power they have, but if everyone’s every action were being monitored, and everyone technically violates some obscure law at some time, then punishment becomes purely selective,” he wrote. “Those in power will essentially have what they need to punish anyone they’d like, whenever they choose.”

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