Defending People's Rights and Freedoms

Naked in Cyber-Space: What You Should Know About The Encryption Debate

By: Vivian M. Williams, Esq.

In 2014 the world was stunned by the release of hundreds of nude, semi-nude, and otherwise revealing pictures of female celebrities that were stolen from digital vaults. It is one thing to stand on Broadway and show some skin for a few fleeting seconds. It is not quite the same, having your nude image transmitted over the internet and viewed on-demand. None of us would want to be in the position of the more than 100 million victims of the Target hacking scandal in 2014, who had their financial data stolen by hackers.

With 1.5 million cyber attacks annually, the problem affects everyone, even those who do not use the internet. You get a sense of the magnitude of the problem when you consider that over 4,000 cyber attacks occur every day. The attacks are mainly against businesses. This means the financial, medical, identity and other sensitive information of individuals are constantly under attack.

Businesses and organizations are prime targets for cyber attacks because they are huge repositories of proprietary information. One successful attack therefore yields large volumes of information. For instance in the Sony Play Station attack in 2011, 77 million data records were stolen. Cyber crimes reported to the FBI in 2013 accounted for $781 million in losses.

There are compelling reasons for all of us to take cyber attacks very serious and begin following developments in this field. Attacks are increasing in frequency and losses are on the rise. In 2014 the number of U.S. data breaches hit a record 783, exposing 85.6 million records. In 2015, the number of records exposed doubled to about 169 million. According to estimates from McAfee and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the likely annual cost to the global economy from cyber crimes is $445 billion.

Encryption is a ray of hope. It is the new battle ground in the fight for privacy. It is also a battlefront in the fight against terrorism. This puts privacy and security on a collision course. These are two of our essential needs. Having to choose between privacy and security is like having to strip naked in the middle of Times Square in order to stay alive. Encryption is the means by which we keep our clothes on in cyber space and preserve our dignity. It is the digital wall that shields us from the preying eyes of government, criminals, the inquisitive neighbor, strangers and other mischief makers.

There are about three (3) cyber attacks every minute. According to CNN Money, in 2014, 47% of American adults had their personal information stolen by hackers — primarily through data breaches at large companies. The annual global cost of cyber crime is estimated at over $400 billion. This problem is get worse not better.

Though encryption provides a solution to the hacking problem, it also hinders the fight against terrorism. The result? Tension develops between government agencies seeking to gain access to encrypted data and tech companies. This tension is illustrated in the controversy between the U.S. Justice Department and Apple over the unlocking of the iPhone of the San Bernardino mass killer. Apple’s rejection of at least 11 court orders issued by USA District courts between late 2015 and early 2016 sparked aggressive litigation between the company and the DOJ. The DOJ eventually dropped the law suit against Apple after, reportedly paying 1.3 million dollars to a third-party to unlock the iPhone.

Everyone should be paying attention to the encryption debate. It is not  a matter for only celebrities, corporations, and social media users. Providing a back-door to secured, encrypted data on mobile devices could aid the fight against terrorism but it may also provide a weak link in the cyber security chain. In 2013, 7% of US organizations lost $1 million or more as a result of cyber crime, while 19% of US organizations reported losses of $50,000 or more. Any weakened link in the chain of security could therefore have untold consequences.

The debate on encryption therefore, should not be about privacy vs. security. It really is about privacy plus security.

Vivian M. Williams is a New York State and Federal attorney who dedicates lots of attention to privacy and media law matters. For consultation on privacy and media law related matters call 212-561-5312 or email follow on twitter @