R Street Institute policy study: Is the debate over encryption giving you the backdoor blues?
Washington (March 5) – For many years, a fierce debate has been ongoing over the question of whether encryption systems should be required to have a “backdoor” that gives the government special access to encrypted information. Law enforcement communities argue that terror will reign if they cannot read all encrypted messages and information. On the other hand, companies, technologists and civil liberties advocates argue that to compromise strong encryption is to devastate individual rights and public security.
In a new study, R Street Senior Fellow and Associate Director of Technology and Innovation Policy, Charles Duan; Director of Technology and Innovation Policy, Zach Graves; Director of Justice and National Security Policy, Arthur Rizer; and R Street Senior Fellow, Mike Godwin provide overviews of encryption, backdoors, the “going dark” problem and the current debate. Then, in order to move past its stalemate, they propose a three-part framework of cost-benefit analysis, adversarial testing of technology and policy implementation.
The paper argues that because the issue of encryption is complicated, there is a tendency to fall back on easy hypotheticals: the terrorist’s cell phone with all the secrets encrypted or the government’s golden decryption key stolen by hackers. However, policymakers must avoid falling prey to such over-simplifications and instead should embrace the complexity of the issue. These discussions are moot without further empirical research that would allow for real-world considerations of a workable path forward. The authors argue: “Now is the time” to act before a “terrorist attack or other emergency threat pushes Congress to enact an ill-conceived encryption backdoor mandate that is not justified either by actual law enforcement needs or by technological study.”