For most people, losing a phone or having it stolen can be nerve-racking.
It’s hard to shake the icky feeling that whoever has it could be looking at all your private text messages, your emails, your bank account, and your photos—maybe some that you’d rather not have posted on the internet or sent to your boss.
But for members of the LGBTQ community around the world, the dangers posed by sensitive personal information falling into the wrong hands go far beyond potential embarrassment. They become a matter of life and death.
The FBI’s attempt to force Apple to write software that could be used to hack any iPhone in existence has generated a media circus, with the press framing the story as a debate between an abstract ideal of individual privacy and our public safety.
But this characterization ignores the reality that for millions of people, privacy and digital security are essential for their physical safety. They’re not luxuries, they’re necessities.
Despite advances over the last few decades, LGBTQ people, particularly transgender folks and people of color, face alarming rates of targeted violence, housing and job discrimination, school and workplace bullying, and mistreatment by law enforcement. In the majority of US states, for example, you can still be legally fired just for being gay.
So while anyone would be terrified about the thought of their phone in the hands of an abusive authority figure or a jealous ex-lover, the potential consequences of a data breach for many LGBTQ people could be far more severe.
Fortunately, most people have a password for their phone.
The technology that makes those passwords matter is called encryption. It’s the basic security that protects our phones from would-be creeps, but it’s also the critical layer of defense that protects our airports, hospitals, power plants, and water treatment facilities from would-be cyber attackers.
Encryption technology is doing as much, if not more, to keep queer and trans people safe as legislation
LGBTQ people around the world depend on encryption every day to stay alive and to protect themselves from violence and discrimination, relying on the basic security features of their phones to prevent online bullies, stalkers, and others from prying into their personal lives and using their sexuality or gender identity against them.
In areas where being openly queer is dangerous, queer and trans people would be forced into near complete isolation without the ability to connect safely through apps, online forums, and other venues that are only kept safe and private by encryption technology.
These situations are not just theoretical. Terrifying real life examples abound, like the teacher who was targeted by for being gay, and later fired, after his Dropbox account was hacked and a sex video was posted on his school’s website. Or the time a Russian gay dating app was breached, likely by the government, and tens of thousands of users received a message threatening them with arrest under the country’s anti-gay “propaganda” laws.
The FBI and other law enforcement agencies have been clamoring for software backdoors and weakened encryption for years, despite the fact that technology experts, and even former intelligence officials, agree that we’re all safer with strong encryption than without.
The latest spat with Apple has brought this previously obscure debate to international attention, and it has exposed the fact that most politicians and media pundits simply don’t understand the technology enough to grasp the potential ramifications of what the FBI is asking Apple to do. This is not about the company “unlocking” a single phone; they’re being asked to create a digital backdoor that could be used to hack any iPhone, in a way that will set a precedent that will inevitably be used to force other encrypted services to do the same.
The FBI justifies their demand by saying that lives are on the line. But they’re conveniently omitting the very real ways that punching holes in digital security puts even more people in danger.
Encryption technology is doing as much, if not more, to keep queer and trans people safe as legislation—which is spottily enforced, and does not prevent the violence and oppression that many of the most vulnerable LGBTQ populations experience.
If you care about the lives of queer and trans people, you should join the growing movement opposing government backdoors in our phones and computers. Strong encryption is saving lives every day. If we lose it, we risk a lot more than our privacy. We risk losing our most basic right: the right to be ourselves.
Evan Greer is the campaign director of Fight for the Future, a leading digital rights nonprofit. She travels internationally as a speaker and performer and is a proud transgender parent. Victoria Ruiz is the lead singer of the Downtown Boys, a bi-lingual dance punk band has made headlines this year with their politically charged, high energy performances.