Global threats to encryption and many other press-freedom-related issues were on the table at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Trust Conference on November 17 to 18. The two-day event brought together online over 600 delegates from more than 60 countries. Press freedom, internet access and freedom of expression are cornerstones of democracy and human rights, and they were among the key themes of the conference’s second day, titled Media Freedom, Technology & Society.

Encryption, especially end-to-end encryption, is vital for independent, investigative journalism and civil society as a whole, and it is currently under threat around the world. This was the topic of an Insight Session moderated by Zoe Tabary, tech editor of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, and featuring panellists Callum Voge, government affairs and policy manager at the Internet Society; Lillian Nalwoga, programme manager of The Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA); and IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen.

End-to-end encryption helps shield communication from surveillance and alteration by third parties so that messages can only be read by the sender and receiver. Encryption is vital for the security and privacy of journalists and their sources. The technology is employed by messaging apps such as Signal and WhatsApp, among other platforms.

Current threats to encryption

End-to-end encryption is currently threatened around the world in the name of internet safety, Voge said. He noted that law enforcement wants to have a backdoor to end-to-end encryption in order to fight crime such as terrorism and the spread of child sexual abuse material, but that this cannot cannot be done without undermining privacy. Despite this, many countries around the world are taking legislative action against encrypted data.

Efforts to weaken encryption are underway in Africa, according to Nalwoga. She said that many African countries are regulating the use of encryption by legislation in the name of national security and fighting crime, but noted that in states where democracy is not a top priority, these laws are being used to target journalists, activists and opposition.

She described digital authoritarianism as a growing concern across the continent. Data is required to be stored locally, journalists have been arrested and charged after decrypting their communications, Pegasus spyware has been used to monitor people who are deemed a threat to security, and the use of VPN connection has been banned in many places.

Importance of encryption to journalists

Encryption is essential for the privacy and security of everyone, especially marginalized and vulnerable groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community. But the right to encrypted communication is also vital for journalistic work, and the weakening of encryption presents a fundamental threat to press freedom.

“Investigative journalists in particular require a strong degree of security and confidentiality to their work, and need to take extra steps to protect their sources”, Griffen pointed out. “Not using encryption lays bare our communication, with all the risks that come with it. Journalists under surveillance may face the risk of physical endangerment and legal harassment. And the knowledge that you are under surveillance has the potential to put journalists off their work or lead to self-censorship. All of this impacts not only the individual journalist, but also society at large if journalists are not able to provide news and information to the public. Encryption is not a silver bullet against surveillance, but it is a vital tool to ensure freedom of expression.”

Griffen underscored the importance of looking at the wider perspective: “Opening a back door to encryption is like a Pandora’s box. Weakening end-to-end encryption for one purpose means weakening it for everyone, and opening up the possibility of abuse.”

Griffen and Nalwoga shared the same concern over intrusive measures used by authorities and the tendency of states to copy encryption policies from one another to silence dissent. “In cases like the Pegasus spyware scandal, it is important to hold states accountable when they use these kinds of instruments”, Griffen said.

Alternatives to anti-encryption policies

The panellists brought up some possible solutions to fighting crime online instead of weaking encryption. Voge said that better use of existing technological tools, such as metadata analysis and dedicated channels for users to flag and report harmful or criminal content, should be considered and that more research on technical options should be conducted. He added that weakening encryption does actually not help with catching sophisticated criminals, as they would just move to other platforms.

Other panel discussions during the Trust Conference highlighted many other current press-freedom-related topics such as the impact of financial vulnerability on news outlets’ editorial independence, the human cost of internet shutdowns, how online and real-life harassment threatens women’s participation in journalism, and how the diversity of newsrooms affects journalism.