Ethical Questions About Encryption
Balancing privacy and the needs of law enforcement
As the website “How To Geek” points out, “computers and the Internet have allowed us to open ourselves up and become more vulnerable than ever before…, and encryption is one of the only methods of keeping [ourselves] safe”—or at least keeping our online communications from being read by unintended recipients.
On the other hand, law enforcement agencies argue that encryption allows criminals to communicate securely, too. If common criminals or terrorists encrypt their communications, law enforcement agents have a harder time disrupting their plans and identifying and capturing those responsible for harmful, illegal acts. More recently, too, hackers have deployed “ransomware”—i.e. software that encrypts innocent victims’ files—and then demanded payment in exchange for decryption keys.
Some have called for the development of encryption that would allow only law enforcement investigators to decrypt information when needed, but would keep others from doing the same. In response, cybersecurity experts have argued that it is impossible to grant such access to the “good guys” without also making it available to hackers and others who would do harm.
Both those who support the widespread use of encryption and those who oppose it say that their goal is to protect innocent people. How might encryption be perceived through different ethical lenses?
From a Utilitarian Perspective
Does encryption do more good than harm? Cryptography experts acknowledge that encryption might hamper some law enforcement efforts. However, they argue that, while law enforcement agents have a variety of other means by which to capture and prosecute criminals, most people don’t have other effective means of protecting their information from snoopers, identity thieves, and the like. However, law enforcement agents, who are tasked with pursuing justice and, whenever possible, preventing harm, view encryption as a tool that makes it harder for them to fulfill their duty. Interestingly, different agencies within the U.S. government have come out on opposing sides in the encryption debate.
From a Rights Perspective
Do we have an absolute right to privacy for our communications? In Europe, for example, privacy is deemed to be a basic human right. Even in European countries, however, the debate about encryption is raging, because the right to privacy (which encryption protects) is balanced against other rights—such as the right to life and security. Does encryption uphold some rights while violating others? Do companies that implement encryption, or individuals who use it, have the right to make those decisions for and by themselves?
From a Fairness or Justice Perspective
In some countries, people are harmed—and even killed—for expressing their opinions, calling for social or political change, or just making fun of others who are in positions of power. Encryption is a tool that protects activists in repressive countries; is it, then, a tool for justice? Does the fact that encryption protects all users equally mean that its use is fair? On the other hand, for now encryption is more likely to be used by tech-savvy users; does that render its use unfair?
From a Common Good Perspective
The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics’ discussion of the concept of “common good” notes that it “consists primarily of having the social systems, institutions, and environments on which we all depend work in a manner that benefits all people." Does encryption contribute to the creation of an online environment that benefits all people? Recently, for example, concerns have arisen over the use of encrypted messaging tools by government officials; in such circumstances, does encryption run counter to governmental transparency, which is, arguably, a common good? Would we, as a community, be better served by an environment in which encryption didn’t function as it does now?
From a Virtue Perspective
Encryption has been described as a tool that protects certain freedoms and promotes certain virtues—such as truthfulness. Does it impair others? Does the availability of encryption allow us to be less prudent, for example, or less courageous? Encryption enables privacy, and privacy has been deemed key to the development of autonomy itself. Does encryption have an impact on the development of ethical character?
These questions are based on the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics Framework for Ethical Decision Making.
Pictured: In this July 30, 2014, photo, Silicon Valley pioneer and Silent Circle co-founder Jon Callas holds up Blackphone with encryption apps displayed on it at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. The Paris terrorist attacks have renewed the debate between law-enforcement officials and privacy advocates over whether there should be limits to encryption technology. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)