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Encryption is a preventative tool that protects children.

Children have a right to privacy. Article 16 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states: “No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor unlawful attacks on his or her honor and reputation.”

Encryption enables children to exercise their right to privacy. It also enables persons to collect, communicate, or store information about children to protect their privacy. Encryption guarantees confidentiality and message integrity, safeguarding children’s online interactions and personal safety. However, some child safety/protection advocates view encryption as a barrier to effective law enforcement and victim-centered justice. In conversations about policing and investigating the proliferation of child sexual abuse materials (CSAM), encryption is often characterized solely as a technical barrier that interferes with child protection. 

One way to keep children safe is to create safe environments free of people who want to harm them. Encryption can help achieve this. It can also protect children’s interests and rights, establishing healthy expectations as they grow into adulthood. Therefore, conversations about encryption should include both its preventative and protective functions. Further, they should take a balanced approach to protecting the safety of children. We support the role of law enforcement in investigating crimes against children; however, the priority must be to protect children from becoming victims, and encryption is a preventative tool for keeping children safe. 

Like crossing the road or learning to ride a bicycle, going online can expose children to danger. Third-party access to information about children and their conversations can be one of these dangers. Encryption addresses that risk by providing confidentiality. We recognize that the technical details of encryption can be complex. That is why policymakers must provide clear and straightforward information on how this digital safeguard works to protect our children, online and offline. Encryption does not hinder protection; it keeps children’s information and communications safe.

Encryption should be acknowledged and valued for its preventative and protective capabilities.  We also acknowledge its limitations. Just as we would not give a child a bicycle, lights, and a helmet and expect them to navigate roads safely without proper guidance, we must reject the notion that quick technological fixes can replace the continuous, diligent work required to uphold and strengthen our social structures. Policymakers must commit to the long-term effort needed to foster a secure and supportive online and offline environment for children. Encryption is vital in this process, but it is only one part of a broader strategy, including education, policy reform, and community engagement. 

How Encryption Protects Children

Encryption ensures that children have spaces for their development and growth and where they can make mistakes without fear of consequences. Encryption protects not only the rights of a child (such as the right to privacy, the right not to be bullied or harassed, and the right to autonomy) but also their persona and reputation. Encryption also provides safety and security by protecting children’s private communications from potential predators and encrypting the vast amount of data collected about children by governments, schools, medical organizations, businesses, and other agencies, reducing the likelihood of harm from cyber-attacks or privacy abuse. 

In an era where digital technology permeates every aspect of our lives, safeguarding children’s safety online is paramount. Encryption serves as a fundamental cornerstone of this protection. It functions as a bulwark, ensuring data integrity and confidentiality, particularly for those children most vulnerable to online threats. Encryption is a robust protective measure that encodes information so securely that only the intended recipients can access it. The following themes with real-world scenarios describe the role of encryption in preserving children’s rights, dignity, and safety:

Protecting Children, Information about them, and Their Privacy: Encryption protects children’s right to privacy and prevents information about children from being exposed to bad actors. 

A children’s hospital integrated encryption into its patient communication systems in response to an alarming increase in cyberattacks targeting healthcare institutions. Despite sophisticated hacking attempts, the encrypted data remained unreadable to attackers. Encryption ensured that children’s medical records, including diagnoses, treatment plans, and personal identification details, were protected from unauthorized access, and supported the hospital’s reputation as a secure and trustworthy institution. 

Encryption deployed as a security measure is a significant deterrent against cybercriminals who might harvest personal data to create fake identities or commit fraud, thus preserving the children’s digital identities and financial and personal future—a social media platform integrated encryption to protect needs from online identity theft. The encryption covered all forms of communication within the platform, including private messages, shared media, and profile information. Encryption served as an effective barrier to protecting children from cyber criminals. 

An educational technology platform employs encryption to protect messaging between students and educators. The implementation of encryption prevented eavesdropping and content tampering, ensuring that the digital classroom remained a haven from intrusions, external surveillance, and the dangers of children being exposed to unvetted individuals. 

These examples demonstrate how reliable encryption can protect children and the benefits of such protection across different environments and threats.

Protecting children from abuse and neglect: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and other child protection agencies have reported that the largest group of perpetrators of child violence and abuse is someone that the child knows. Accordingly, children sometimes need protection from someone close to them. Children need a secure and confidential environment to seek assistance without fear of retaliation or exposure. 

Child protection agencies handling sensitive abuse and neglect cases adopted encryption in their communication protocols. Encryption ensured that when children or individuals concerned reported abuse or when agents communicated about cases, the information was secured from end to end. This measure was critical in maintaining confidentiality, especially in cases where the abuser might have access to other forms of communication. It also provided a secure line for children in danger to seek help, knowing that their messages would not be intercepted or traced back by their abusers. Encryption is vital in providing such spaces, especially for marginalized or vulnerable youth. 

For instance, youth navigating tumultuous family dynamics may turn to online counseling services for support and guidance. Encryption ensures that their conversations remain private, shielding them from potential harm or discrimination within their households.  Similarly, children experiencing a mental health crisis, such as suicidal ideation, require access to confidential hotlines and counseling services. Encryption safeguards these communications, allowing children to reach out for help without compromising their privacy or risking further distress. 

A non-profit organization introduced end-to-end encrypted messaging applications in regions ravaged by conflict, where children are especially vulnerable to recruitment by militant factions. These apps were distributed to children and their families, allowing them to communicate securely despite being surrounded by hostile forces. The encrypted channels protected not only the content of their messages but also their physical safety by cloaking their locations and movements from potential abductors or coercive entities. 

A school, recognizing the increasing issue of cyberbullying, implemented an encrypted reporting system. This encryption system allowed students to anonymously report bullying incidents, providing details without fear of identification. The anonymity assured by encryption encouraged more students to come forward. Furthermore, it provided schools with vital information to address and reduce bullying while preserving the confidentiality of those who report, fostering a culture of safety and support within the school community.

Helping children exercise agency: Encryption empowers young people to explore sensitive topics and access vital educational resources without fear of surveillance or interference. Consider scenarios where adolescents seek information on religion and family matters, sexual and reproductive health, including contraceptives or STD prevention, or what to do in the event of a sexual or physical assault. In households where discussions around such topics may be taboo or met with hostility, encryption ensures that children can access accurate and comprehensive information privately. 

By preserving their autonomy in navigating these crucial aspects of their development, encryption fosters a culture of informed decision-making and empowerment among children.  Access to reliable information is essential for children’s education, well-being, and safety. However, the internet can be a double-edged sword, exposing children to misinformation and potential harm. Encryption serves as a safeguard, protecting children’s access to accurate and trustworthy information while shielding them from intrusive surveillance or manipulation. Consider instances where children research sensitive topics. Encryption ensures that their search queries remain confidential, safeguarding them from potential repercussions or censorship within their households or communities. By securing access to information, encryption empowers children to explore diverse perspectives, make informed choices, and navigate the complexities of the digital landscape safely.

It is our hope that this document and shared perspectives can add to the larger conversation about the role of encryption in keeping children safe online. While a number of voices have identified encryption as a threat to children’s safety, we offer these alternative perspectives. The ways that adults may seek to harm children online through the use of encryption needs to be addressed, however, not at the expense of protections offered to children through the use of encryption.

Dr. Mark Leiser, Digital, Legal, and Platform Regulation

Larry Magid, CEO

Andy Phippen, Professor of Digital Rights
Bournemouth University, UK

April Lat, Board Member
Internet Society, San Francisco Bay Area Chapter

Miriam von Zuben, Security Analyst /

Steven Murdoch, Professor
University College London

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