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Encryption an 'Enabler of Human Rights,' Amnesty International Says

Human rights group Amnesty International has released a report calling encryption an "important enabler of human rights" — just before Apple was due to go to court with the government in a case that has turned what was once an obscure military technology into a topic of water cooler conversation.

Amnesty's 41-page report lays out the organization's case for the importance of encryption — the technology that makes sensitive digital information like your bank transactions harder to hack by scrambling the information beyond recognition. While encryption can also be used by terrorists and crooks, Amnesty says, the benefits of security and privacy to billions of law-abiding device users outweigh what a few bad guys might do with the technology.

The report also narrows in on the ongoing case in California, where federal investigators have sought help getting into an iPhone 5C used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook. Lawyers for the government filed an application to delay the hearing late on Monday, which the judge granted. They said the FBI had come across a new method that might allow it to crack the phone without Apple's help.

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"At stake in the Apple case is whether a future administration could exploit the next national moment of crisis, and use its access to our phones to target journalists, or persecute activists and minorities," Naureen Shah, Amnesty International USA's director of security and human rights, said in a press release.

Is Apple Developing Unhackable iPhone Technology? 2:03

The case in California, in which Apple and government lawyers were originally scheduled to appear before Judge Sheri Pym in the Central District of California on Tuesday, isn't strictly speaking about encryption.

Apple's made encrypting it's products a priority in the years since Edward Snowden's leaks on the extent of government surveillance, but in this case federal investigators wanted the company to build a new technique to circumvent security features that would lock them out after too many passcode attempts.

So, while the case isn't directly about encryption, if the phone's contents weren't garbled, the FBI might not need a special route in devised to begin with.

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Dozens of cryptography experts and digital privacy advocates signed on to amicus briefs in the weeks ahead of Apple's scheduled court date. Many shared Amnesty's concern: That if Apple is forced to create a tool to help the U.S. government in this case, it would also be made to comply if authorities in say, China, wanted to get into a seized iPhone.

Amnesty International's new briefing is the prominent rights group's first time laying out a comprehensive stance on the importance of encryption. Beyond the ongoing clash between the federal government and Apple, Amnesty argues that encryption is a crucial tool for people resisting oppressive regimes around the world, providing a layer of security in an age when people exchange huge amounts of information over the Internet.

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"Encryption is a basic prerequisite for privacy and free speech in the digital age. Banning encryption is like banning envelopes and curtains. It takes away a basic tool for keeping your private life private," Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Amnesty International's deputy director for global issues, said in a release.