The Grassroots and the Battle Over Encryption

Remarks delivered at the #CryptoSummit on July 15, 2015.

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Good morning. Thank you for inviting me.

Congratulations to ACCESS for holding such a successful summit on the vital issue of encryption. Encryption is part of a suite of technology and privacy issues that have kept things interesting up on Capitol Hill. As we saw recently, the grassroots energy and activism around surveillance and net neutrality provided an educational opportunity for members of Congress.

Right now, policymakers are in the process of mangling encryption. A senator, who I won’t name, recently compared encryption to poisonous waste dumped into our rivers and streams. He argued that companies pushing for encryption are harming the public.

It’s not entirely surprising that some members of Congress are getting this issue wrong, at least right now. Congress has seriously diminished its ability to understand complex policy issues. The number of committee staff in the House has been cut in half over the last 3 decades. Expert agencies inside the legislative branch have been cut to the bone. Congress is at the mercy of special interests for information and guidance. And no interest is more special than the defense establishment, which literally has offices on Capitol Hill and places staff in member offices.

This is why grassroots pressure is so important. It forces members of Congress to move away from simplistic narratives. It drives them out of the bubble. It forces them to engage with the people most expert on encryption — the people in this room — and with the millions behind us. Grassroots pressure also helps change the narrative about encryption and widen the range of policy options.

For example, last year’s ResetTheNet campaign encouraged developers to make their websites more secure from prying … and encouraged Internet users to use NSA-resistant privacy tools. By getting more people to use encryption, the ResetTheNet campaign worked towards three important goals:

First, it made the use of encryption more commonplace, showing that is not scary or complicated.

Second, it taught how the widespread use of encryption can protect everyone from surveillance, like mass inoculation against virulent diseases.

Third, it encouraged policymakers to find a solution that is proportionate and appropriate to the problem it is trying to address.

A campaign raising awareness around encryption, no matter how clever, is only half the battle. People must connect encryption to bigger fights and broader organizing efforts. To win on encryption, it must be seen as a brick in the wall against an overly-intrusive government and other hackers.

And that wall must be built upon opposition to the USA PATRIOT Act, to skepticism around the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, to deep concern on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, to dread around Executive Order 12333, and so on.

We have won unprecedented victories lately by educating and organizing around these issues. Hundreds of thousands of people weighed in on mass surveillance. We must apply those lessons to encryption, and help people connect the dots. They must come to understand the fight is about the future of privacy, about the future of technology, and about the future of democracy.

We have made good headway, but there is so much more to do. Thank you.

{ Like this? You may also like Sunsetting the Politics of TerrorWhat Our Mass Surveillance Debate Gets Wrong, & Senate Torture Report: The Senate Speaks }

— Written by Daniel Schuman