Meanwhile, anti-encryption initiatives in the US, including proposed legislation like the Earn It Act, continue to pit law enforcement against technical protections. Pfefferkorn is clear about the division. “You really can’t be pro-choice and anti-encryption at this point,” she says.
The researchers point out that encryption is often thought of in the context of enabling freedom of speech, but it can also be viewed through the lens of self-defense.
“Effective, uncensored, covert communications are certainly more valuable to resistance movements than small arms,” says computer security consultant Ryan Lackey. “If you had magical, secure telepathy between everyone in your organization, in a civil war or resistance scenario where some of your allies were within the opposition, you wouldn’t need a single gun to win.”
Lackey points out that there are parallels between encryption and firearms, as outlined in the Second Amendment, an observation that others have sometimes explored. However, the key element is the connection to the right of self-defense, which the Supreme Court’s Second Amendment absolutists repeatedly cite as a “central component” of the law.
In addition to end-to-end encryption’s ability to protect people from their government, the police, and prosecutors, it also protects them from other people who want to do harm, whether they’re criminal hackers or violent extremists. While equating encryption with a weapon misconstrues its function—it’s much more of a shield than a sword—this defense remains the most powerful tool people everywhere have to protect their digital privacy. And a clear parallel can be drawn with the fervor with which gun advocates embrace their right to bear arms.
Stanford’s Pfefferkorn points out that it is logical and necessary for abortion providers, patients, or anyone who is pro-choice to embrace and defend encryption in general, but especially in light of repeal Roe v. Wade. She adds that at this moment, when the Supreme Court is overturning decades of established precedent on different issues at once, the most important conclusion that can be generalized is the benefits of an end-to-end encryption approach and the necessity of preserving that approach.
“Laws can change. Social rules can change. A perfectly harmless conversation you had yesterday could come back to hurt you for years,” says Johns Hopkins cryptographer Matthew Green. “That’s why we don’t record every spoken conversation and keep it forever. Encryption is just a way to give digital communications the same basic protection.”
Twenty-six states have either criminalized abortion, will do so, or are likely to do so. How these laws will be implemented remains unknown. What is certain is that millions of people who had nothing to hide before the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision now face the prospect of being targeted, surveilled and even imprisoned for their reproductive health. And end-to-end encryption will be key to their self-defense. As Signal’s Marlinspike said during a panel discussion at the 2016 RSA Security Conference in San Francisco, “I actually think law enforcement should be hard… I think it should actually be possible to break the law.”