Transatlantic call series: uniting digital rights litigators to challenge anti-encryption measures

Transatlantic call series: uniting digital rights litigators to challenge anti-encryption measures

By Jason Williams-Quarry, 11th October 2019

This week, we held our third transatlantic call, hosting a conversation between digital rights litigators in Europe and the US. Following a conversation about potential areas for transatlantic collaboration last week, this week’s call focused on encryption.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) told participants about their work challenging anti-encryption measures. These organisations frequently collaborate to challenge anti-encryption, seeking protection of the rights of individuals (and their devices) under the Fifth Amendment. This protects people under investigation from being forced to open their devices to police or courts, as doing so may violate their right against self-incrimination.

EFF also shared experiences of their work in the Apple v. FBI case that concerned a judgement requiring Apple to engineer a ‘backdoor’ into its iPhone software operating system. This would create a security flaw leaving iPhone users vulnerable to hack. In this case, EFF filed an amicus brief to the court arguing that Government demands were violating Apple’s First Amendment rights. An interesting discussion point came from reflections that, when it comes to challenging anti-encryption measures, sometimes maintaining the status quo can be considered a win. Under this theory, the longer that anti-encryption measures can be held back, the more encryption will become the ‘norm’.

We also heard how US and European organisations have collaborated in the past, commonly through interventions by US organisations in European cases. EFF and the ACLU called for more European organisations to reach out about anti-encryption cases, so that cross-Atlantic collaboration can continue to grow in the future. Other topics touched upon during the conversation were attempts from the police in the UK to gain access to the phones of sexual abuse victims and ongoing work in Russia, where the Government are trying to force Telegram to provide access to users’ keys

At the end of the session, participants shared lessons learnt and made plans for follow-up and collaboration. This further built on some of the work done during the preceding transatlantic call, where participants focused on ‘heat mapping thematic areas for transnational collaboration’. This demonstrated an interest in exploring joint work on, amongst others, the privacy shield, facial recognition and the datafication of migrant and refugees’ data.

What we continue to appreciate from this transatlantic call series, is how the participant-led discussions during each call build the foundation for the next. We look forward to seeing this process continue and are exploring ways in which we can organise an in-person meeting to do more in depth work on issues of mutual interest.

Our next and penultimate call in the series will take place on Tuesday 15 October, focusing on ‘machine learning and human rights’.  If you have not yet registered to join this call and you would like to, please let us know, so we can add you to the list!