For the Encryption Illiterate: A Brief, Up-to-Date Review of Human Rights and Encryption

Based on the UNESCO publication Dec 2016 of the same name; one of a series centered on Internet Freedoms and accepted guidelines of Internet Universality


padlock-lock-chain-key-39624It cannot be ignored. Within the realm of internet governance, there is no more debated topic than encryption. Encryption is defined by UNESCO as “the protection of personal data against unlawful access by other-than-intended recipients”(UNESCO, 2016, p. 12). It has been a topic of concern since the 1990s, beginning in the U.S. Crypto Wars. Such an epic title! Yet, this refers to the ethics of telecom companies wiretapping individuals for law enforcement. If you missed it, the state won; i.e. CALEA act. The topic seems to have faded to the periphery until 2013, when the debate arose once more, after Snowden blew a whistle on U.S. mass surveillance tactics compromising privacy, security and anonymity. Bam! The world paid attention to whether state’s have the right to force the private sector to play peeping tom on an individual; i.e information freedom facing off against public safety concerns. In a world of terrorist threat, the state tends to fear that strong encryption would present possible obstacles to access and lead to dark shadows of maliciousness. World councils have pondered this problem; two ideas that resurface are increased transparency or backdoor government access. Within the framework of this Encryption report, the conclusion is that these solutions are flawed or technologically impossible to achieve due to points of vulnerability and certain collateral damage to e-commerce, global trade and cyber-security, etc.  The reviewers acknowledge the doomed seesaw effect… pursue one platform, compromise the other.


Policy Development around the World

Various state approaches to internet governance and encryption policy are given attention, as well. For example, the German state has plans to become ‘Encryption Site #1’. And, Brazil drafted a legal framework of internet rules, bundling internet rights with net neutrality, etc. On paper, it looks good… in practice? Well, people have to pay attention to a freedom before much can be said. In Northern Africa, Tunisia, they have laws banning the encryption usage and tossing individuals in prison for up to 5 years for the unauthorized sale/use of such. To round this out, Egypt’s ‘Remote Control System’ is a tyrannical mass-surveillance concept. Did you know, the state even blocked Facebook? Horrors! Evidently, state encryption policies fall on a wide spectrum. However, the internet, by its very nature as a communication network, has no international boundaries. The report recommends user advocacy/education and further coordination among nations to develop internet governance norms. People want a “free, open and trusted internet that enables [them] to …access information resources…[and] to contribute information and knowledge to local/global communities”(UNESCO, 2016, p.11).


How do Human Rights fit in?

How do they not? Human Rights (UDHR ‘soft law’ and ICCPR treaty agreements) are considered in a lengthy fashion. Nobody has the right to tell you what to think; opinions are absolute freedoms. They are formed through access to information and an exercise of the freedom of expression. Therefore, policy protection granted to expression, extends to opinions and to information access points. In combination with the policy right to privacy, user encryption rights are covered; even deemed an obligation. Further, there is a basic human need for uninhibited communication in order to develop as individuals.Without which (drumroll, please), the result may be a “general numbness or freezing of intellectual life”(UNESCO, 2016, p. 54).

To conclude, follow the worthy report’s recommendation…. Resist an intellectual ice age! Do not become popsicles! Develop as individuals! Exercise your right to information access and educate yourself about encryption!



25/02/17 by Shannon Yarbrough

To read further on this publication, CLICK HERE!



UNESCO. (2016). Human rights and encryption. Retrieved from

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