If Not Amended, States Must Reject the Flawed Draft UN Cybercrime Convention Criminalizing Security Research and Certain Journalism Activities

Deeplinks 2024-06-14


The latest and nearly final version of the proposed UN Cybercrime Convention—dated May 23, 2024 but released today June 14—leaves security researchers’ and investigative journalists’ rights perilously unprotected, despite EFF’s repeated warnings.

The world benefits from people who help us understand how technology works and how it can go wrong. Security researchers, whether independently or within academia or the private sector, perform this important role of safeguarding information technology systems. Relying on the freedom to analyze, test, and discuss IT systems, researchers identify vulnerabilities that can cause major harms if left unchecked. Similarly, investigative journalists and whistleblowers play a crucial role in uncovering and reporting on matters of significant public interest including corruption, misconduct, and systemic vulnerabilities, often at great personal risk.

For decades, EFF has fought for security researchers and journalists, provided legal advice to help them navigate murky criminal laws, and advocated for their right to conduct security research without fear of legal repercussions. We’ve helped researchers when they’ve faced threats for performing or publishing their research, including identifying and disclosing critical vulnerabilities in systems. We’ve seen how vague and overbroad laws on unauthorized access have chilled good-faith security research, threatening those who are trying to keep us safe or report on public interest topics. 

Now, just as some governments have individually finally recognized the importance of protecting security researchers’ work, many of the UN convention’s criminalization provisions threaten to spread antiquated and ambiguous language around the world with no meaningful protections for researchers or journalists. If these and other issues are not addressed, the convention poses a global threat to cybersecurity and press freedom, and UN Member States must reject it.

This post will focus on one critical aspect of coders’ rights under the newest released text: the provisions that jeopardize the work of security researchers and investigative journalists. In subsequent posts, Wwe will delve into other aspects of the convention in later posts.

How the Convention Fails to Protect Security Research and Reporting on Public Interest Matters

What Provisions Are We Discussing?

Articles 7 to 11 of the Criminalization Chapter—covering illegal access, illegal interception, interference with electronic data, interference with ICT systems, and misuse of devices—are core cybercrimes of which security researchers often have been accused of such offenses as a result of their work. (In previous drafts of the convention, these were articles 6-10).

  • Illegal Access (Article 7): This article risks criminalizing essential activities in security research, particularly where researchers access systems without prior authorization to identify vulnerabilities.
  • Illegal Interception (Article 8): Analysis of network traffic is also a common practice in cybersecurity; this article currently risks criminalizing such analysis and should similarly be narrowed to require malicious criminal intent (mens rea).
  • Interference with Data (Article 9) and Interference with Computer Systems (Article 10): These articles may inadvertently criminalize acts of security research, which often involve testing the robustness of systems by simulating attacks that could be described as “interference” even though they don’t cause harm and are performed without criminal malicious intent.

All of these articles fail to include a mandatory element of criminal intent to cause harm, steal, or defraud. A requirement that the activity cause serious harm is also absent from Article 10 and optional in Article 9. These safeguards must be mandatory.

What We Told the UN Drafters of the Convention in Our Letter?

Earlier this year, EFF submitted a detailed letter to the drafters of the UN Cybercrime Convention on behalf of 124 signatories, outlining essential protections for coders. 

Our recom



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Katitza Rodriguez

Date tagged:

06/14/2024, 12:31

Date published:

06/14/2024, 07:27