Comparing the Push for Anti-Encryption and Cyber Sovereignty

An unintended consequence of the push for government access to encrypted communications in the West might be the justification of cyber sovereignty laws (state control over the internet within its borders), which to date have largely been viewed in the United States as a means to restrict civil liberties. At its core, both these efforts are the result of governments seeking to address the disruptive nature of an international, borderless domain that overlays across national boundaries.

Similar reasoning related to internal security appears to be fueling the pushback from governments in the West against encryption, as well as the advocacy for cyber sovereignty in Russia and China. Within the West, the United States is not alone in advocating for backdoors in encrypted communications. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently spoke against end-to-end encryption saying, "We need to ensure that the internet is not used as a dark place for bad people to hide their criminal activities from the law." Additionally in June, the German government announced plans for a law that would allow the government the ability to conduct telecom surveillance on communications prior to encryption.

In contrast, President Trump instructed the office of the United States Trade Representative to determine whether to initiate an investigation into acts, policies or practices that harm intellectual property, innovation and technology belonging to American corporations doing business in China. In this case, the White House is pushing back on China’s desire for cyber sovereignty with its own arguments in favor of the right of United States’ companies to encrypt or otherwise protect their proprietary information. Corporations claim that they lose up to $600 billion per year to intellectual property theft and data disruption. However, a cornerstone of Chinese cybersecurity law is the "secure and controllable" standard that stresses China’s need for cyber sovereignty. Among other things, the Law forces companies operating in China to disclose critical intellectual property to the government and requires that they store data locally. Even before this Chinese legislation, software piracy was a substantial problem in China. Now, despite the new law, or because of it, some American companies fear that they may be even more vulnerable to misappropriation of their proprietary data.

While pressing issues like terrorism may make backdoor access to encrypted messaging apps desired from a government point of view, it may increase the difficulty for Western businesses to expand abroad when they are faced with similar requests. Much like the ongoing debates around supply chain security and data sovereignty, how policy is formed on these issues in the West will have global ramifications for businesses.