Encryption has a rich history in the United States, dating all the way back to the coded messages smuggled by George Washington’s network of spies. While the technology has changed significantly, the practice of securing one’s private communications continues.
While the tech industry and privacy advocates push to maintain and even improve encryption practices, there are those who hope to undo this important protection. Over the past several months FBI Director James Comey has been reiterating his concerns over current encryption practices, calling for a “golden key” that will enable the government to access encrypted information.
Comey claims to support an approach that balances privacy and security. But in many respects, his request is akin to asking for a master key to every American’s home, making all confidential information vulnerable to prying eyes. Comey will make his case for this plan tomorrow before the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees. I hope senators and their staff will consider these ramifications of undermined encryption, whether it’s by the FBI, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency or any other three-letter agency.
Intelligence community divided on strong encryption
Many in the intelligence community do not want to weaken privacy practices. During a May 2015 address to the Joint Service Academies Cyber Security Summit at West Point, Admiral James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answered a question from “security guru” Bruce Schneider on the balance between security and surveillance:
I think we all win if our networks are more secure. And I think I would rather live on the side of secure networks and a harder problem for [NSA Director Mike Rogers] on the intelligence side than very vulnerable networks and an easy problem for Mike. And part of that — it’s not only the right thing do, but part of that goes to the fact that we are more vulnerable than any other country in the world, on our dependence on cyber.
This divide in the intelligence community should give senators pause as they consider calls to create backdoors for government agencies.
Code specialists oppose government access to encrypted communication
This week, expert cryptographers, computer scientists and security specialists released a study titled “Keys Under the Door Matt,” looking at proposed mandates for government access to all data and communication. The paper concludes that “analysis of law enforcement demands for exceptional access to private communications and data show that such access will open doors through which criminals and malicious nation-states can attack the very individuals law enforcement seeks to defend.”
While there has been heavy criticism from individual tech companies and public interest groups of the Comey proposal, this report adds the perspective of actual cryptologist experts.
Encryption is the Second Amendment for the Internet:
Earlier this year, Sunday Yokubaitis, president of Internet security company Golden Frog, wrote an op-ed connecting the Second Amendment to encryption:
If you encrypt your digital communications, you should be celebrated. You’re fighting the good fight. You should not draw suspicion from the FBI or NSA. In the same way that firearms are synonymous with the Second Amendment and protecting yourself, using encryption to protect your data should be a fundamental right.
Yokubaitis goes onto describe how, just as the right to bear arms has been used to defend against threats, encryption protects individuals, not just from government overreach, but also protects against other prying entities like hackers and foreign governments.
It isn’t just the military or James Bond-type agents who rely on encryption. Many Americans use encryption to protect against intruders in every facet of their lives, whether it’s my wife changing her online banking passwords weekly, an entrepreneur protecting their “secret sauce” from prying eyes, missionaries working in countries unwelcoming of their religion, attorneys defending clients, baseball teams devising “sabermetric” strategies to get a competitive advantage or teens writing in their diary about the latest gossip in school.
To some government agents, obtaining “exceptional access” to our private data and communication appears a shiny new object to catch bad guys. But careful consideration demonstrates that the costs far outweigh the potential benefits. Strong privacy protections go hand-in-hand with good policymaking. We should not cast aside the benefits of encryption, but should preserve its viability in the future.