Ubiquitous Encryption and Lawful Government Access


The global debate on encryption has produced a fault line between law enforcement and industry, the latter supported by privacy and civil liberties advocates. On the one hand, government organizations, companies and individuals want to protect themselves from unwanted access to sensitive digital data, and encryption is part of the solution. On the other, the increasing use of digital technology by criminal and terrorist organizations has heightened public concern about the threat such malicious use poses to society. Encryption can impede law enforcement's ability to investigate or prevent such crimes. While the issues are complex and difficult, the discussion to date has been simplistic. Recognizing that no national solution in itself will be adequate, this breakthrough group will explore middle ground proposals that reflect the international availability of encryption.


In May 2016 EWI and Europol co-hosted a comprehensive workshop on “Lawful Access and Security: A Transatlantic Perspective” in The Hague. Over 50 officials, industry players and experts from Europe, India and the U.S., collaborated to find approaches that will maximize commercial and individual information security and human security in today’s digital era. In addition, EWI thought leaders discussed this issue with key stakeholders and partners from around the world to solicit feedback and identify ways forward. Finally, during the initiative’s mid-year strategic review roundtable, a set of 10 myths in the encryption debate were identified by Stanford University's Herb Lin that will provide the basis for the group's future policy development work.

In January 2017, Bruce McConnell testified on encryption at the National Academies of Sciences event at Stanford University. The National Academies of Sciences is preparing to release a new report on encryption in mid-2017 to assess options and tradeoff of government access to plaintext information in an era of ubiquitous encryption. He summarized encryption policies in democratic regimes and emphasized the need to carefully review and balance privacy and public safety concerns. In what has become a publicly charged and polarized debate, McConnell noted that a middle ground on encryption that serves common interests is possible to find – “if started from a frame of common interests, solutions almost always emerge, sometimes rather unexpectedly.” 


Composed of a diverse set of corporate, government and law enforcement leaders from around the world, this breakthrough group strives to challenge common assumptions in the encryption debate with the goal of creating a more realistic and nuanced discussion through off-the-record conversations and original research.

Related Publications:

Don't Panic: Making Progress on the "Going Dark" Debate

Statement of Sally Quillian Yates, Deputy Attorney General, Department of Justice and James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Keys Under Doormats: Mandating insecurity by requiring government access to all data and communications