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Just Encryption

In honor of National Cyber Security Awareness Month, I'm launching a series of posts on the subject of encryption in service of social justice.

Detail from "Encryption Made Easy" (Bart Everson, 2016)

 

I've long been fascinated with encryption. As a kid, I thought codes were cool. As an adult, I see the value encryption offers for keeping my personal data secure.

But what, if anything, does encryption have to do with social justice?

Plenty.

I got my first inkling in 2016, just after the election of Donald Trump to the highest office in the land. Under the prior administration, the apparatus of the surveillance state was developed to levels previously unimaginable. Obama handed that system to Trump.

Of course, if you're not concerned about our own government spying on us, perhaps you're concerned about foreign powers. There's no denying that international cyberwarfare is real. There are also hackers and straight-up cyber criminals. Not to mention those big corporations.

Whoever's doing the snooping, the harm is felt disproportionately by marginalized communities — as is typically the case when power relations are manifestly unequal.

Rights must be understood and exercised in order to afford us any protection. That holds as true for privacy rights in the digital realm as it did in the analog era of the civil rights movement.

Furthermore, scholars have a special interest in freedom of inquiry, germaine to all those working in the field of education. Educating on these issues is aligned with Xavier's mission, and it's vitally important that our faculty and staff understand what's at stake.

As noted in a recent United Nations report, encryption is emerging as a keystone for human rights in the 21st century:

Encryption and anonymity, today's leading vehicles for online security, provide individuals with a means to protect their privacy, empowering them to browse, read, develop and share opinions and information without interference and enabling journalists, civil society organizations, members of ethnic or religious groups, those persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, activists, scholars, artists and others to exercise the rights to freedom of opinion and expression.

Encryption is simply the practice of putting your data into a secret code so other people can't read it. It's an important tool for maintaining privacy and security online. Before the 2016 election, writing for TechCrunch, Steven Renderos and Mark Tseng Putterman observed that "for activists and people of color, strong encryption is essential."

In the days and weeks ahead, I'll be publishing a series of simple tips to help you get started using encryption more frequently. I'm far from expert myself, so I'll be learning as I go. If you have any questions or suggestions, don't hesitate to let me know.

Next up: Using Signal for secure text messaging.

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