WASHINGTON—Encryption technology may help you keep those racy Google searches private, but cybersecurity experts Tuesday said it also helps racial minorities, battered women and LGBTQ people by protecting their information from wrongdoers and connecting them with other marginalized individuals in a safe space.
“The people in my community are worried about deportation, incarceration and their livelihoods being affected, not just their privacy being breached,” said Assia Boundaoui, director and producer of “The Feeling of Being Watched”, a documentary about FBI surveillance of Muslim-American communities since 9/11.
Boundaoui said many marginalized people have been traumatized from being under surveillance.
“When you’re being surveilled, you’re afraid of talking to people and that leads to increased paranoia,” she said.
Individuals in surveilled communities may be afraid to seek help for a disorder or donate to a charity, for instance, because they distrust those whom they believe are surveilling them, experts said. They said having encryption technologies available enables people to seek the help they need.
According to Cynthia Wong, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, encryption technologies also can save lives.
In some countries, Wong said, LGBTQ people are arrested or killed for their sexual orientation so having access to encryption can help them more safely connect with others in their community. She said some governments have weaponized homophobia and will post videos of activists outing them as LGTBQ and putting their lives in danger, actions her organization is seeking to curtail.
“We are in places like eastern Europe and Nigeria teaching people how to use secure tools to protect themselves. Without encryption their lives would be endangered,” she said.
Cindy Southworth, founder of the Safety Net Project, an organization committed to ending domestic violence, said that abusers can find their victims through non-encrypted websites using phone numbers.
“There was one case where the abuser knew the best friend’s number and was able to find his ex-wife by hacking her friend’s documents,” she said.
Abusers may also use their jobs to find their victims.
“Abusive partners may work for tech giants and so encryption is important to keep data safe,” said Southworth.
Southworth said victims of abuse are helped tremendously by the technology because only they, and the individuals they trust, have access to their records. Their abuser or a defense attorney working on their abuser’s behalf won’t be able to find their records.
Although experts agree that bad actors also can use encryption technologies, it’s mostly a positive tool.
“There are people who use encryption on the dark web to do horrible things, but there are people who can use cars to rob banks, and others who use cars to take their families on vacation,” said Matt Mitchell, founder of CryptoHarlem, which teaches encryption and digital security to African Americans in urban areas.