Security is Not a Crime—Unless You’re an Anarchist

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Rise­up, a tech col­lec­tive that pro­vides secu­ri­ty-mind­ed com­mu­ni­ca­tions to activists world­wide, sound­ed the alarm last month when a judge in Spain stat­ed that the use of their email ser­vice is a prac­tice, he believes, asso­ci­at­ed with ter­ror­ism.

Javier Gómez Bermúdez is a judge of Audi­en­cia Nacional, a spe­cial high court in Spain that deals with seri­ous crimes such as ter­ror­ism and geno­cide. Accord­ing to press reports, he ordered arrest war­rants that were car­ried out on Decem­ber 16th against alleged mem­bers of an anar­chist group. The arrests were part of Oper­a­tion Pan­do­ra, a coor­di­nat­ed cam­paign against “anar­chist activ­i­ty” that has been called an attempt  “to crim­i­nal­ize anar­chist social move­ments.” The police seized books, cell phones, and com­put­ers, and arrest­ed 11 activists. Few details are known about the sit­u­a­tion, since the judge has declared the case secret.

At least one law­mak­er, David Com­pa­ny­on, has spec­u­lat­ed that the raids are a “stunt to gar­ner sup­port for Spain’s recent­ly approved ‘gag law.’” The new law severe­ly restricts demon­stra­tions, set­ting huge fines for activ­i­ties such as insult­ing police offi­cers (€600), burn­ing a nation­al flag (up to €30,000), or demon­strat­ing out­side par­lia­ment build­ings or key instal­la­tions (up to €600,000). Con­sid­er­ing the pro­vi­sions of the law, it’s no sur­prise that many see the raid, con­duct­ed against a group with polit­i­cal ideas that the gov­ern­ment appears to find threat­en­ing, as con­nect­ed.

In a state­ment, Rise­up not­ed:

Four of the detainees have been released, but sev­en have been jailed pend­ing tri­al. The rea­sons giv­en by the judge for their con­tin­ued deten­tion include the pos­ses­sion of cer­tain books, “the pro­duc­tion of pub­li­ca­tions and forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion”, and the fact that the defen­dants “used emails with extreme secu­ri­ty mea­sures, such as the RISE UP serv­er.”

It’s unclear exact­ly what the judge means by “extreme secu­ri­ty mea­sures.” As Rise­up points out, “many of the ‘extreme secu­ri­ty mea­sures’ used by Rise­up are com­mon best prac­tices for online secu­ri­ty.” It seems the inher­ent assump­tion behind the judge’s deci­sion is that using ser­vices that fol­low best prac­tices for online secu­ri­ty should be con­sid­ered sus­pi­cious. This clear­ly runs con­trary to the pre­sump­tion of inno­cence, a core require­ment of inter­na­tion­al human rights law. But what’s more, using ser­vices with strong secu­ri­ty is how indi­vid­u­als can exer­cise their right to pri­va­cy and expres­sion in the dig­i­tal age while stay­ing safe. Every new data breach and secu­ri­ty dis­as­ter reminds us of this.

Call­ing the desire to be safe online “extreme” is incred­i­bly dis­turb­ing. But it’s hard­ly sur­pris­ing. Dur­ing the “Cryp­to wars” of the 1990s, the US gov­ern­ment prop­a­gat­ed the idea that strong encryp­tion should be treat­ed like a weapon. That may be because strong secu­ri­ty makes it hard­er for agen­cies like the NSA to brazen­ly sur­veil everyone—and makes it hard­er to repress groups with polit­i­cal ideas that threat­en the sta­tus quo. There’s no ques­tion that anar­chists fall into that cat­e­go­ry, and it’s per­haps that issue that has the Span­ish gov­ern­ment con­cerned.

In its state­ment, Rise­up explains that it “has an oblig­a­tion to pro­tect the pri­va­cy of its users,” and “is not will­ing to allow ille­gal back­doors or sell our users’ data to third par­ties.”

There’s strong evi­dence that the NSA has ensured that back­doors are built into many prod­ucts and ser­vices. Com­pa­nies and groups such as Rise­up want to pro­vide users with reli­able, secure net­work ser­vices even when—in fact espe­cial­ly when—dealing with requests from law enforce­ment and lawyers to hand over pri­vate user infor­ma­tion and logs. They have devel­oped strong poli­cies to pro­tect them­selves from legal lia­bil­i­ty, but more impor­tant­ly to pro­tect the safe­ty and pri­va­cy of their users.

The need for that pri­va­cy and secu­ri­ty can­not be over­stat­ed. In his land­mark report to the 23rd ses­sion of the Human Rights Coun­cil, the U.N.‘s free speech watch­dog, Frank La Rue made clear that secure com­mu­ni­ca­tion are crit­i­cal for an open soci­ety. La Rue stat­ed:

Indi­vid­u­als should be free to use what­ev­er tech­nol­o­gy they choose to secure their com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and that states should not inter­fere with the use of encryp­tion tech­nolo­gies.

With­out ade­quate pro­tec­tion to pri­va­cy, secu­ri­ty and anonymi­ty of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, no one can be sure that his or her pri­vate com­mu­ni­ca­tions are not under states’ scruti­ny.

Pri­va­cy is an essen­tial fea­ture of any free soci­ety. Along­side the “gag law,” repress­ing pri­vate, secure com­mu­ni­ca­tions sends a dis­tress­ing sig­nal about the Span­ish government’s inten­tions. But there is still time for the court to cor­rect this deci­sion. If the rea­son these activists are being held tru­ly is their per­fect­ly rea­son­able and com­mon deci­sion to secure their own com­mu­ni­ca­tions, they should be released now.