Opinion

Congress Must Address the Importance of Encryption and Online Privacy for Vulnerable Communities

The internet is an incredible tool that brings people together, advances opportunities, and opens entire new worlds for those in largely underserved or vulnerable communities, including the LGBTQ+ community. However, there are very serious, real risks facing all Americans — but especially marginalized communities — with regards to both online privacy and the advent of innovative, new technologies.

That is why recent efforts by the governments of the United States, United Kingdom and Australia to urge Facebook to suspend its efforts to increase end-to-end encryption across its messaging services platform are so concerning. The open letter jointly penned by these countries calls on Facebook to pause its security actions until the company “can guarantee the added privacy does not reduce public safety.”

While the protection of public safety is a legitimate government aim, and a priority that we share, it is misleading to frame the issue as a binary choice between privacy and security. LGBT Tech and other technology and civil rights organizations maintain that delaying strong, end-to-end security measures will only put more consumers at risk of having their sensitive and personal data breached, mishandled or exploited.

At a recent panel, LGBT Tech joined representatives from the Hispanic Technology and Communications Partnership, the AARP and the Center for Democracy and Technology to discuss the importance of heightening online security measures for vulnerable communities by strengthening and improving encryption efforts. Perspectives varied, but one underlying theme became clear: Preserving end-to-end encryption is viewed as one of the most effective ways to prevent cyberattacks on marginalized communities.

As early adopters of technology, the LGBTQ+ community is particularly susceptible to online data security breaches, abuse, or misuse. One recent study, for example, illustrated just how pervasive social media use is among LGBTQ+ individuals: More than 80 percent of LGBTQ+ respondents say they utilize social media, compared to 58 percent of the general population. That is why encryption is such an important tool — it protects our community and allows vulnerable populations to more openly and freely share their personal stories and struggles online, as well as to access information on health and other critically important and sensitive topics securely.

Creating “back doors” to encrypted networks, as some government officials want to do, would expose already at-risk individuals to greater risk of having their data exposed or hacked, which would have particularly disastrous impacts on the LGBTQ+ community. In countries such as the United States, these consequences can unfortunately still include loss of employment and stigmatization from family and community members.  In other countries around the world where Facebook operates, the consequences can be far more severe: Same-sex activity remains a crime in 70 countries and can be punishable by death in nine, according to Amnesty International.

That is why we believe Facebook and other online platforms must press ahead with end-to-end security efforts — and why government policy should support and advance these efforts evenly and fairly among all companies operating in the internet ecosystem.

The risks facing LGBTQ+, minority and other historically marginalized and vulnerable communities does not end with encryption, however. A range of new technological innovations has the potential to put Americans’ safety and civil liberties at risk. Rapidly advancing facial recognition technology for example is being embraced and employed by several local, state, and federal government entities – including law enforcement.

To be sure, facial recognition represents a major technological breakthrough with potential applications that can improve safety and quality of life. However, it remains a largely untested and unregulated technology. Existing flaws in the technology leave it open to a range of human rights abuses as well as hacking, potentially exposing millions to having their biometric data stolen and used improperly. For transgender, nonbinary or gender nonconforming individuals in particular, the technology poses even more complicated problems, including not being able to be recognized because their true gender identity may not align with their government-issued ID. Facial recognition technology also notoriously misidentifies people of color, too, raising serious questions about how is being used for policing.

That is why LGBT Tech joined together with the ACLU and 60 other groups to urge Congress to put into place a moratorium on facial recognition for law and immigration enforcement purposes until such a time that there is full, Congressional debate regarding what, if any, uses of this technology should be allowed and created a one-sheet for the LGBTQ+ community on the issue. Such a debate should be included in a broader effort to pass a broad federal privacy standard that applies to all technology companies, regardless of their business model or where they operate online. The sooner the better for LGBTQ+ and other vulnerable communities.

Carlos Gutierrez is the deputy director and general counsel for the LGBT Technology Partnership & Institute.

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