Cindy Cohn

Encryption and Liberty

Air Date: February 4, 2017

Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation talks about safeguarding digital rights.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. The headline of a recent Forbes report reads: “As the Trump Presidency Looms, Digital Activists Brace for a Fight for the Internet”. The story featured prominently the work of Cindy Cohn, Executive Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Based in San Francisco, the EFF is the leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world. Founded in 1990, EFF champions user privacy, free expression, and innovation through litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism and technology development. So as the new administration considers its tech policies and advocacy for 2017 and beyond, I asked Cindy to join us today to consider how she and her colleagues are going to safeguard our most fundamental digital institutions that appear under constant threat, and surveillance, we might add. Welcome, Cindy.

COHN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: How are you and your colleagues at the Foundation and elsewhere intent on protecting, whether it’s digital resources or infrastructure, to insure that a free and open web um- never ceases to exist.

COHN: Well, it’s always been the case that digital technologies could help give us more freedom and liberty, but only if we wanted them to and only if we made a set of decisions that point in that direction. And so, you know we, we are very concerned about the language coming from the Trump Administration and some of the key appointees so far. Um- that that’s going to be under bigger threat. Um- you know, the tools that we use are litigation, which may become more important um- as- as- if we have a hostile administration, it may be up to the courts to stand up for our liberties in a way that they might not have been called upon so much to do, um, before. Um. Building technologies. We’re working to encrypt the web and we’ve got a project to encrypt email, um, as it transits the internet, um, more thoroughly and other kinds of projects where the technology itself serves the goals of liberty and privacy. And then of course we’ll continue to do- be engaged in the policy battles as well.

HEFFNER: What- what do you concern yourself with most as the central policy battle?

COHN: The idea that the internet- that new technologies, left to their own devices, will magically make us all better people and live in a more just society was never really true, and now I think we’re beginning to see it. So what does that mean for us? I think it means first of all we need to build a secure internet and a privacy protected internet. We need to make sure that somebody in charge of policy decisions can’t effect our ability to have a private conversation to organize, um- to build communities of support for each other. The thing that the technology lets us do is that it lets us coordinate, speak to, and work with people who are very far away, in- you know, in a way that no technology before has really allowed us to do. But that doesn’t magically fix things. We need to have a secure set of technologies. We need to um- find ways to empower users, get rid of people in the middle who can have so much of a- of a- of a- a censorship effect on what we can say and do. And then we need to use these tools to educate people to make better decisions, as opposed to just fomenting and spreading the worst ideas, which the technologies are happy to do. We need to start marshalling these- these forces to be able to help us decide better what’s true, to help us spread good ideas, to make sure that- you know, there’s an old- uh- uh- quote from I think it was from Mark Twain, that you know, “a lie can make it half way around the world before the truth gets its boots on.” Um. The technology isn’t going to fix that magically. But if we start thinking about it that way and empowering users, we might be able to- to do that. But you know, at the end of the day, technology is just reflective of what’s going on in society. And I think often it’s very easy to blame the internet for hate when hate happens because people aren’t feeling heard and because they’re being given, frankly, bad stories about why their- why their suffering and the suffering they’re seeing around them are actually occurring. And um- technology can’t magically solve that problem. We actually have to move beyond technology to have conversations with people about how to make the right choices in these situations. And so I often find that it’s easy to blame the internet because of course the internet can’t really speak back, as opposed to looking at- maybe a little deeper about why some of these conversations are- um- catching fire in a way that they didn’t before.

HEFFNER: Well, whenever I’m on a college campus, I’m asking the students. What browser do you use, what platforms are you on. And really having an evaluation of your digital footprint as a citizen.

COHN: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: And um- I think to this day, young people are surprised to learn that if you’re on Safari or Chrome, it’s going to be a different outcome than if you’re on Mozilla Firefox in terms of the security you have that you can retain privacy. Uh- so that literacy point resonates for me very much. We’re at what appears to be a dangerous moment in the way we configure the internet. Because at the same time, we want to develop cyber-security so that the Russians or any entities are unable to hack in to our political leadership’s emails, or lay people, any citizen’s email. We- at the same time, want to create encrypted networks to protect against, um, any attempts at a Muslim registry, um- some of the chatter that’s come from the administration about surveillance that is targeting people based on their skin color or religion. So how do you balance that, um, the reality that we need more security and yet, you know, recognize that individuals demand that same level of protection too?

COHN: Well, I think that they both point in the same direction. Right? We need networks that are secure, that are not hackable- aren’t as tappable- are as protective of our privacy as possible, um- both for societal reasons and for personal reasons. Um. Whether your threat model is identify theft- somebody’s gonna come hack your identity, whether your threat model is because you might lose your phone and you know, three million people had their phones stolen, another 1.2 lost them in 2013 alone- that’s from Consumer Reports. Um. Your data needs to be safe so that when these incidents happen it’s not an utter catastrophe for you. Because more and more, you know, our ability to get a mortgage, our ability to actually navigate the world depends on information that’s in the hands of third parties at some times. And if that information is corrupted, it can really affect our lives. So we believe strongly that um- that one of the core values we need to have in a digitized world is strong encryption, strong protection of that information. And that requires having conversations about the government’s role in tapping the networks and also private company’s roles in gathering these vast storehouses that can then be used, you know- Facebook, uh- or other social networks are a really simple way for the government to figure out, say, who’s a Muslim, who’s an immigrant, you know- who’s a person- who’s a vulnerable community. We need to make that information less available to them and harder to use for them so that the standards get- get raised. So. Um. So we’re a very strong proponent for strong encryption and strong security not just because of the privacy implications but because of the security implications as well.

HEFFNER: What are you expecting and hoping to hear from these companies in their pledge to protect their user’s privacy?

COHN: Well, I think the first thing they need to do is really deploy strong encryption everywhere, right? Data at rest should be encrypted. If you break in to the Democratic National Committee’s web- computers, you shouldn’t- you shouldn’t be able to see data in the clear. Right. It should all be encrypted at rest, it should be encrypted when it’s traveling. Like- you know, these are- these are um- not that hard to do. They take a little thinking, but they’re all things that these companies could do. Um- many of them started doing them, you know, significantly more after, um, Mr. Snowden’s revelations in- you know- proved that the NSA was actually tapping in to the places where these networks you know, where Google servers in one country talking to Google servers in another, that- that that link in between those two servers was one of the key places that the NSA and GCHQ, the British equivalent, were tapping in to their networks to suck down information about us. Um. Google quickly started encrypting those links, as did lots of other companies. But there’s more to be done. And uh- EFF has been helping. We actually launched, uh, in conjunction with a group called ISRG, a- something called a certificate authority that is- is um- now the- you know, number one way that you can encrypt your- your web traffic. Um- and it- it requires the websites that you visit to- to engage in something called a certificate process. Um. But since launching one of these for free, dead easy, we’ve seen um- the encrypted- you know- the part of the web that’s encrypted just rise dramatically, but you know- we’re a tiny nonprofit in San Francisco. We shouldn’t be doing these. Like- the companies should be doing this themselves. And they’re starting to. So I think that’s a first and easy step for the companies to do. The second thing is for the companies to push back. Don’t roll over when the government shows up and seeks information about your users. Um- demand all the legal process, fight gag orders, uh- a lot of this process that happens, um, that has been implemented in the last 15 years involves really- not only getting information from companies, but making companies not tell you that your information has been collected by them. Um. Having companies begin to push back against those and make noise. Again, some of this is already starting to occur, but we need more of it to occur. And then we need the companies to stand up for us in the policy debates as well, you know? We- you know- uh- President-Elect Trump called in a meeting with tech and it was all tech corporate leaders. There was nobody representing the users of technology, which of course- the internet isn’t them, the internet is us- all of us who use these technologies. It’s great that they build them and it’s great that they have a good business model, but they’re not tech- they’re just a piece of tech. Um- so they need to stand up for their users and recognize that, you know, if they don’t stand with all of us- the users- then we all go down together.

HEFFNER: What about code of character?

COHN: Code of character?

HEFFNER: That’s the problem, right? That’s the problem, because if I said that- I- I- I’m going to spell it out in a second.

COHN: OK. Good. I could guess, but-

HEFFNER: No, I won’t make you guess, but Farhad Manjoo- um- technology columnist for the New York Times- wrote a piece not so long ago on Twitter. Twitter has the right to suspend Donald Trump, but it shouldn’t.

COHN: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: I ask you this in the context of, not just freedom to safeguard your personal information, but violations to folks’ space on the web, and these companies’ failure to institute a code of character for its users. To insure um- a degree of uh- public discourse- a quality of public discourse that uh- is going to um- encourage um- you know, basic human decency and if you peruse Twitter, Facebook, or some of the other social media- and we had the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League on recently, you’ll see a huge proliferation of hate speech. And so when I say a code of character, it occurs to me, Cindy, that- and I wonder what EFF’s response is to this- that we- we ought to embrace a freedom from- not just a freedom to or of- information access but a freedom from disinformation, misinformation, that seems to be so pervasive online today.

COHN: Well, I think that um- uh- I- part of my hesitation with this is- who you going to make god? Right? Who are you going to decide- who’s gonna be the person that decides what you and I see? Um. Who are we going to trust with that awesome responsibility? Because Twitter- I’m not sure I think that the executives at Twitter or the people at Twitter- the people at Twitter who do their moderation, many of whom are, you know, contractors with very little training who are based- some of them based in, you know, San Bruno, California, many more of them based all over the world- are really in a good position to be able to tell uh- what stuff we should be able to see and what stuff we shouldn’t. Um. Our pressure on Twitter and these other companies is to put tools in the hands of their users- to let them control what comes at them and let them control what they do. There’s plenty of room that those companies should- can do to empower people to be able to mark things as inappropriate. To be able to share block lists, to be able to do all sorts of things to control what they see. But the minute you outsource that and demand that a company start doing it, they’re going to start making decisions that I don’t think you’re gonna agree with. And they’re going to get played. We see this all the time in fights around um- on Twitter and other social networks around, say, the Ukraine. Um. There are lots and lots of people who uh- in Russia and in Ukraine who are fighting over who’s who- who’s a Nazi, who’s not a Nazi. Who’s a real believer in freedom, who’s not a real believer in freedom. And these companies get played all the time in terms of who they block and who they let speak. And you know, Twitter does a lot of blocking. So do all of these groups. And they get played- this happens in the-

HEFFNER: What do you mean they get played?

COHN: It means that they get convinced that somebody’s a bad guy when they’re not really a bad guy. The vulnerable people- the people- you know, I mean the Chinese are masters at this. They flood the network with people who will push and attack the people who are critical of the government such that those people get played as if they- they get portrayed as if they are the bad guys, when I suspect, from a human rights perspective, we might actually think that they’re the good guys. This happened in the Ukraine and the fight around the Crimea where there were many many Russians who flooded on to Twitter and were trying to convince Twitter that the people who are talking about Ukrainian independence were actually Nazis. Some of them actually probably were Nazis- the Ukrainian Independence movement is complex. But the idea that a bunch of third party people sitting in, you know, a- an office in India are going to be able to understand the geopolitics of these conversations, to understand who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy and what’s fake and what’s real about that, I think- is wishful thinking on behalf of a lot of us. And so you have to really be- the First Amendment idea is that uh- we don’t have a centralized person who decides what’s true and what’s not true and what’s right and what’s not right and which voices deserve to be heard and which voices don’t deserve to be heard. Instead we let the people themselves decide what they get to hear and the government stays out of that conversation. Now, Twitter’s not the government, and this is- Farhad is right to say that Twitter certainly has the power to decide who gets to speak on its platform and who doesn’t. Um.

HEFFNER: And he’s pointing out that there could be blowback from Trump’s removal just as there has been and you’ve documented in individual cases of- you remove uh- one set of racist accounts or one kind of bigotry, what you see in return is a multiplication of that sometimes, too.

COHN: Yes. We call that the Streisand effect for historical reasons at EFF. I think that’s right. I mean, so- not only is it dangerous to put somebody in charge of that, but you’ll lose. Right, because people find ways to communicate ideas to each other regardless. You can’t- they’re not magical key words that only bad people use that good people don’t use. You’ve got- you know, if you’ve got a picture of- you know, I think that, you know, this example, I heard your ADL thing. You know, if you’ve got a picture of, you know, Auschwitz, that might actually be, uh, something that’s very powerful and something we think ought to be shared in one context and something that’s really awful and should not be shared in another. And expecting Twitter to be omniscient enough about every single situation in the world such that they can- that they’ve got people who can make those decisions and make them in the way that you and I would think were right- it’s wishful thinking.

HEFFNER: Let me tell you what the problem is though. It may be wishful thinking, but the problem is that Twitter is to this generation what Encyclopedia Britannica was to us. That’s the problem. The problem is that Twitter is legitimizing voices as- because so many people get news and information from Facebook and Twitter- it becomes valid in a way that it would not be valid, even though definitionally it might be described in- there would- that’s what I see as the problem.

COHN: But that’s a media literacy problem. Right? This is because this is a new technology and people haven’t learned the kind of skepticism and the fact-checking ability that you need to have to be able to deal with the new technology. You know, Encyclopedia Britannica had errors in it too. Um- uh- but I think-

HEFFNER: They weren’t Nazi memes, though, I mean it just-

COHN: Right, but, but- Twitter isn’t supposed to be the Encyclopedia Britannica and the fact that people are treating it like that is something we need to fix.

HEFFNER: Well let’s talk about the fixing of that problem.

COHN: So- I mean- because there have been yellow sheets, right?


COHN: There have been- there has been bad information shared widely in the world.

HEFFNER: I understand.

COHN: And in this country for the rest- for the time. But we all learned the difference when we were- you know. We all need to learn the difference between what information you can trust and what information you can’t trust. And no amount of technology can replace that educational process. And it can lead to really scary bad places if we decide to do that. You know, if we decided that the FCC should decide what’s true and what’s not true, that might be really perfectly OK for people under one administration, but then somebody else is gonna grab the reins of power, and are you going to be comfortable with that as well? Official censors, pressure on companies to become the official censors is something we have historical- historical, um- uh- examples of. And it doesn’t really end well. And again, our founding- our founding documents were created to make sure that didn’t happen. So that we didn’t end up in a world where a certain subset of powerful people, be they in government or in private, didn’t get to decide what the rest of us saw.

HEFFNER: Right. I hear you. I- I want- the reason- one of the reasons I invited you here was to help our viewers understand beyond what browser you use, what EFF implores, what it encourages in terms of that kind of responsible stewardship of digital technology.

COHN: Sure.

HEFFNER: Because the reality is Twitter and Facebook have not owned up to being the media- or reconceive themselves as educational companies in the way that would enable the kind of experience that you could foresee in that there is a mechanism for learning and it is not subject to censorship but at the same time there can be a greater, uh- friendlier collaboration on social media. So what can we do, besides take ownership of what browser we use, or download the badge, um, what are we to do, um, in playing our role in the digital ecosystem to model the kind of internet we want for the broad spectrum of folks.

COHN: Well, I think that people can engage in fact checking and share that information. I also think- you know, one of the things that I think we should unpack a little bit is this idea that Facebook especially is some kind of neutral and that neutrality is the problem, because Facebook isn’t showing you a neutral set of things when you log on to Facebook. It has algorithms that are trying to decide what you want to see based on what you’ve looked at before and what people in your cohort have looked for before, and using these big data techniques to try to present you with information that will keep you on Facebook. That’s not neutrality. That’s a very different thing.


COHN: And I think that talking about that and getting Facebook, um- out of the- out- pushing them to be out of the business of reinforcing everybody’s biases by what they show them- that’s not Facebook-


COHN: That’s actually a legitimate thing to have a conversation with them about and about letting people have more options than just Facebook’s algorithm’s prediction of the kind of thing that’s gonna keep you outraged and upset and thus on Facebook longer.

HEFFNER: But what about net neutrality, which seems to be up in the air now that the new administration has taken power… uh- how would you underscore the importance of the FCC’s existing rules and how they may be reformed now.

COHN: Well, the worry about this is that the- that the people who control, you know, what we like to think of as the pipes of the internet will start using that power to extract rents from people who want to serve you information. Right, so the idea is that AT&T goes to, you know, Craigslist, or one of the other websites that you might like to go through, and says, well, nice website you got there, you know, why don’t you give us a little money and we’ll make sure it actually loads for people. Um. So that’s what we’re going to be watching for. I mean, we’re going to fight for the rules. That’s what the rules we’re attempting to try to stop, to make sure that, you know, your ability to access a website depends on your desire to access the website and not the deals that the intermediaries have made with each other about what information you get to receive and what information you don’t get to receive or how well it works. And um- so we’re going to tend- you know, this used to be called the end-to-end principle before it was called network neutrality. We’re going to keep watching for that. We’ve already been the leading organization identifying situations in which that principle’s being violated, and we’re going to continue to do so. Um. Um. But it is nervous-making. I think the FCC took a pretty bold step to try to make sure that they enforce these rules for people. And if that enforcement goes away, I’m worried that the- the duopoly- Verizon and AT&T who control access to- you know- a large percentage of people’s broadband, Comcast as well- will start viewing their role as basically deciding what you get to see if you’re one of their customers.

HEFFNER: And finally, Cindy, what about the prospect of deletion of content on .gov sites and across the internet space?

COHN: Well, I think there’s a worry about that. There’s a worry about the libel laws- conversations that Mr. Trump has said and other things. That’s why organizations like the Internet Archive, um- Brewster Kahle, who is the founder of the archives, on my board. And we have represented the Archive a lot in various battles that they’ve had. Um. They’ve become really important. But we can do that.

HEFFNER: And he’s moving offshore, to Canada.

COHN: Well, he’s trying to make a copy of the Archive that’s available- that’s not available- that’s not solely vulnerable to U.S. jurisdiction. There’s a piece of the Archive that’s already in Alexandria- uh- the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. He’s moving more and more of it to Canada, just so it’s distributed. And one of the nice things that networks let us do is distribute information so that if it goes down in one place it’s available in another still. And um- I think it’s wise for us to begin to think about what’s important information for us to be able to share, keep, and not lose down a memory hole and begin to make many copies of it and spread it across the internet.

HEFFNER: And what does that mean for a lay person, in terms of their storage on a Google Drive, or Apple.

COHN: Well, for starters, as a consumer, you should never just have something on a third party’s computer. You should always keep a home copy of anything that matters to you. Whether that- you can just buy a cheap hard drive, plug it in to your computer, save all your important documents locally so that if those go down or if they shift dramatically, you still have all of your- all of your important information. That’s important to do regardless. People should be doing that anyway because those third party systems can go down. They can have problems, they can- you know, there’s mergers and acquisitions. Companies that were here today are not there tomorrow, and they do not continue their services necessarily. Uh. Anybody who’s ever had music that they bought from- you know, a Zune or something like that understands this. We should think of all of our important documents and information in that same light and you should always keep a local copy. Um. So that’s-


COHN: That’s just straight consumer information, I think, but that’s important too because if those third parties go down, then people are still going to have this information and they can do it. Then there are networks- there’s more like Tor, the Onion server, and other sorts of things where people who have a little bit more technical knowledge can begin to make copies of critical information and keep them uh- in multiple places so that it’s available.

HEFFNER: Servers that are not just at Palo Alto, and San Francisco.

COHN: Exactly. Servers that are available around the world. Um- systems that are available around the world. Human Rights groups have been doing this for a very long time. People are trying to get important information out of places like China. Um. And Iran and Iraq. These are all systems that if you go in to the Human Rights world are kind of well established, and um- it just may be that the rest of us need to think about how to use them a little bit as- as well. Um. But the good news is that a lot of them exist and that they’re fairly easy to use, things like peer-to-peer systems. Um as well.

HEFFNER: Thank you so much for joining me today.

COHN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion in to the world of ideas. Until then- keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.