We should celebrate the transformative power of encryption and spotlight the incredible things it has done in the fight to expose injustice and give a voice to the voiceless, Bastian Obermayer writes.
When the source of the Panama Papers approached us nearly eight years ago to hand over the biggest leak of documents any journalist had ever received, a sentence sent via encrypted chat, stood out: “My life is in danger.”
As we began our investigation into the documents, my colleague Frederik Obermaier and I found that cronies of Russian President Vladimir Putin were included in the leaked data.
It became pretty obvious that “John Doe” — the alias that the Panama Papers leaker chose for him or herself — was right to be afraid.
Putin was not amused that we could reveal that his childhood friend Sergej Roldugin — a musician by profession, who previously claimed in an interview with the New York Times that he was not a businessman — secretly owned offshore companies worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
John Doe is still unknown — thanks to encryption
The Russian president doesn’t particularly like it when someone hits too close to home. And as we all now know, people whom Putin doesn’t like fall out of windows, get blown out of the sky, or simply get shot.
The leak would go on to bring down governments, reveal financial and other crimes on a global scale, and incite mass demonstrations across several countries — because the Panama Papers showed that inequality is still a fundamental issue of our societies around the globe.
Despite the dozens of high-profile enemies these revelations made them, John Doe — the single source behind the Panama Papers — is still unknown. And they are still alive and safe.
This has a lot to do with the fact that they insisted on only having strictly encrypted communications, no exceptions. No phone calls, and definitely no meetings.
With the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), we implemented Jon Doe’s regime with the more than 400 fantastic journalists who worked alongside us on the Panama Papers.
Over and over, we repeated the only rule that applied to all of us: Shut up and encrypt. It worked.
Encryption empowers people
This is why Global Encryption Day 2023 is so important — recognising the power of encryption and its ability to empower individuals to expose corruption in today’s society.
Without strong encryption, the Panama Papers investigation would have been an even more dangerous endeavour for John Doe — possibly lethal.
And this would have been a disaster for the public and for us, as it would gravely endanger everyone, and potentially even stop their ability to hand over crucial information about these global scandals.
But journalism is not only dangerous for our sources — it’s also very dangerous for journalists in many countries.
Without strong encryption, our colleagues would be unable to conduct high-quality investigative journalism, as it ensures their reporting is not compromised by external parties attempting to access their sources' information, trying to influence or pressure them.
Encryption makes people powerful. Yet, this freedom is under attack from governments across the globe. The shots are fired from places most of us would not even expect.
For instance, the UK’s Online Safety Bill proposes the monitoring of end-to-end encrypted communications. The bill, which is set to receive Royal Assent in the coming weeks, would give the authorities encryption-breaking powers with no adequate safeguards.
In the US, the EARN IT Act proposals threaten to weaken encryption by expanding the liability risks of messaging platforms.
And it’s still unclear what will happen with the EU’s Child Sexual Abuse Regulation proposals after the vote on it was called off, due to a lack of consensus in the European Commission.
Giving a voice to the voiceless
Human rights groups all over the world have issued repeated warnings on the dangers of such powers, so far with little success.
Although we can recognise that some of these proposals are written in good faith, and could produce some good outcomes, we must still fight against their very problematic nature.
Encryption is a massive asset for democracy. Holding a private conversation is a human right, and it’s necessary for a sane public.
We should celebrate the transformative power of encryption and spotlight the incredible things it has done in the fight to expose injustice and give a voice to the voiceless.
Look around you: whenever people risk their lives for justice, when they want to stand up to their governments, you can be sure they’ll want to encrypt their chats.
They need to, and they should be able to do so. And in these turbulent times, so should we all.
Bastian Obermayer is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist who exposed the Panama Papers.
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