A landmark United Nations report released Thursday says that data encryption and online anonymity is essential to exercising basic human rights, warning that government-mandated "backdoors" would be detrimental to those rights.
"Encryption and anonymity enable individuals to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age and, as such, deserve strong protections," says the report written by David Kaye, special rapporteur in the U.N.'s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The report comes as the U.S. and other governments continue to debate how to give law enforcement agencies the ability to access encrypted data -- data that has been digitally scrambled so that only authorized people can access it.
Following former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden's revelations about secretive National Security Agency surveillance programs, many tech companies have moved to encrypt more of their products to appease consumer concerns over government snooping. Encryption software is vital to protecting the privacy of communications.
But many Obama administration officials are pushing back - including FBI Director James Comey and NSA chief Adm. Michael Rogers - attempting to force companies to incorporate backdoors into their encryption software. Doing so would give the government "master key" to access the encrypted content, and for all intents and purposes, practically render the encryption useless. Officials argue that such backdoors are vital to protecting the nation against terrorism.
On Wednesday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said she has "grave concerns" about encryption being used by "people whose sworn duty is to harm Americans here and abroad," The Intercept reported.
"We are seeing many more people involved in terrorism investigations using peer to peer communications, specifically encrypted communications-communications that are designed to disappear once they are sent," Lynch said.
Also on Wednesday, speaking at a cyber warfare conference, Rogers said enryption is "not bad" and is actually a "fundamental part of the future," but questioned whether it was possible to create "some mechanism" to allow governments to "access information that directly relates to the security of our respective nations" while staying "mindful" that citizens' rights have to been protected, according to ZDNet.
The 18-page U.N. report says that's simply not possible, and strongly urges governments not to mandate that surveillance backdoors be built into encryption software.
"In the contemporary technological environment, intentionally compromising encryption, even for arguably legitimate purposes, weakens everyone's security online," Kaye argues.
"Discussions of encryption and anonymity have all too often focused only on their potential use for criminal purposes in times of terrorism. But emergency situations do not relieve States of the obligation to ensure respect for international human rights law."
He continues: "States should promote strong encryption and anonymity. National laws should recognize that individuals are free to protect the privacy of their digital communications by using encryption technology and tools that allow anonymity online. Legislation and regulations protecting human rights defenders and journalists should also include provisions enabling access and providing support to use the technologies to secure their communications.
States should not restrict encryption and anonymity, which facilitate and often enable the rights to freedom of opinion and expression. Blanket prohibitions fail to be necessary and proportionate. 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 goes on to ask that Congress consider the Secure Data Act, legislation that would prohibit the government from forcing companies to build backdoors into their encryption.
At the same time, the report does concede that "court-ordered decryption" could have its place, which worries privacy advocates.
"Court-ordered decryption, subject to domestic and international law, may only be permissible when it results from transparent and publicly accessible laws applied solely on a targeted, case-by-case basis to individuals (i.e., not to a mass of people) and subject to judicial warrant and the protection of due process rights of individuals," the report says, while failing to address how exactly a company like Google or Apple would decrypt data that even they don't have the encryption keys for.
The report also warns against governments banning anonymity tools such as Tor. It will be presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council next month.