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“Encryption” generally conjures up images of clandestine communication between spies, saboteurs, hackers, and the mildly paranoid, often typing away furiously on a keyboard in a dark room until someone says “I’m in!”
The truth, however, is far more mundane. Almost everyone in the West — and certainly everyone reading this — uses some kind of encryption technology on a weekly, if not daily, basis. You may not be aware that you’re using it, but you’re using it nonetheless. If you like buying things on Amazon, doing your banking from home, or paying your bills from your computer, you rely on ubiquitous, relatively inexpensive, and strong encryption. Companies also use it in a myriad of other, equally mundane, ways that are essential to their business. Encryption makes the world go ’round.
Unfortunately, it’s also useful to those trying to make the world stop. That, understandably, has FBI Director James Comey worried. In order to help fight criminals and terrorists, Comey has been calling for greater cooperation between industry and the government on encryption. Specifically, Comey wants industry to design its encryption technologies to be quickly accessible to law enforcement and national security. Just last week, Comey testified before congress to that effect (from the NYT):
A spokesman for the F.B.I. declined to comment ahead of Mr. Comey’s appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Wednesday. Mr. Comey recently told CNN, “Our job is to find needles in a nationwide haystack, needles that are increasingly invisible to us because of end-to-end encryption.”
A Justice Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity before the hearing, said that the agency supported strong encryption, but that certain uses of the technology — notably end-to-end encryption that forces law enforcement to go directly to the target rather than to technology companies for passwords and communications — interfered with the government’s wiretap authority and created public safety risks.
It takes little imagination to see how such access could be incredibly useful in foiling criminals and terrorists. But, as Patrick G. Eddington points out via the Cato Daily Podcast, any means that allow the government to gain access to encrypted information also make it easier for malefactors to access as well. Adding an extra door to your house — no matter how well-locked — always makes it easier for someone unwanted to break in. As such, the government’s request for back-door access is not merely costly to encryption, but fundamentally at odds with its purpose.
If you go back to that NYT piece, you’ll see that industry figures are arguing forcibly that, if Comey’s requests are met, their businesses won’t work. Basically, their argument is that his desire to protect us from the malicious use of encryption — i.e., Islamic State or al Qaeda members sending each other coded messages about attacks, etc. — risks destroying innocuous-but-important use of the same technology for the rest of us.
So here’s the question: putting aside the legal matters for a moment — i.e., let’s just assume that it’s all constitutional — is it good policy for our law enforcement and national security agencies to have back-door access to all encrypted material? Put another way, should all commercial encryptors be legally required to share their methodologies with the government?