IP Expo Europe: Cyber security and human rights entwined

News by Tony Morbin

Excessive spying has made legitimate access by the authorities to private data harder to achieve, but stong encryption is out of the bottle and won't go back says Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

Today the IP Expo Europe conference and exhibition kicked off with an authoritative and impassioned plea by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to keep the internet free from state censorship, describing cyber-security as one of the most important issues facing IT and society as a whole. In response to previous calls by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, that the authorities should be able to read any digital communication,  Wales commented: “It's too late David. The maths works, it's out of the bottle.”

Based on experience of Wikipedia contributors in authoritarian states having their website usage tracked, then being arrested and tortured, Wales noted that if your communications channel was not secure, then the government could profile people based on their searches.   Consequently, he described encryption as the “cheap and moral thing to do”, noting how Wikipedia, via TPO, provides encryption for messaging from day one, with use of https for websites by default, as he told delegates he expected governments to seek to increase the extent to which they track people's activities online.

But encryption usage is growing and Wales described how 38 out of 39 messaging apps in an EFF review were encrypted, and 22 out of 39 were end-to-end, while eight had a perfect security score incorporating features such as regular changing of encryption, renewing code etc – whereas most messaging was in the clear just a few years ago. Wikipedia also now used SSL everywhere and he noted how Google was increasingly unable to identify search terms used, so say Chinese authorities, who have banned Wikipedia, can now only see that you are looking at Wikipedia, not what search terms have been used or content views. 

Wales saw cyber-security as entwined with human rights, saying: “Our tech choices here in the UK and in the West have importance all around the world,” noting how Raif Badawi had been sentenced to 1,000 lashes for creating a website/forum promoting liberal thought in Saudi Arabia. Asked about Wikipedia's own handling of different viewpoints on topics, Wales responded: “There's a distinction between editorial judgement and censorship.”

Wales did, however, accept that there was a responsibility to respond to legitimate requests for data, but that the authorities reading everything was not acceptable, noting: “Over-reaching spying on the public has made it a lot harder (for the authorities) to engage in lawful warranted investigations – it's happened now and it's permanent.”


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