Government Limits on Encryption Will Lead to Trouble


A group of highly trained cybersecurity experts reported Tuesday that giving law enforcement special access to encrypted data for investigations would pose “major security risks.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab report included input from cryptography experts Bruce Schneier and researchers from MIT, Stanford University, Columbia University, Cambridge University, Johns Hopkins University, Microsoft Research, SRI International and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Dating back to October 2014, U.S. law enforcement officials have called for a special portal that would allow government agencies to access encrypted data that could help them in investigations. The report tells us that a backdoor for the government and law enforcement also provides an opening that could be exploited by cyber thieves.

The cybersecurity experts argue such special access points “pose far more grave security risks, imperil innovation on which the world’s economies depend, and raise more thorny policy issues than we could have imagined when the Internet was in its infancy.”

“At a time when we are struggling to make the Internet more secure, these proposals would take a step backward by building weakness into our infrastructure,” MIT principal research scientist Daniel Weitzner says. “It’s like leaving your house keys under the doormat: Sure, it may be convenient, but it creates the opportunity for anyone to walk in the door.”

The report comes just one day before Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey appears at back-to-back hearings on the Hill to make his case that the agency should have backdoor access to encrypted data so that it can complete investigations. Comey has been calling for action on this issue since October, when Apple first released an operating system with encryption enabled. Public discourse on the issue was reignited a week ago when Prime Minister David Cameron said he would ban encryption, a lofty and unpopular goal.

“There is simply no doubt that bad people can communicate with impunity in a world of universal strong encryption,” Comey wrote. “I really am not a maniac (or at least my family says so). But my job is to try to keep people safe. In universal strong encryption, I see something that is with us already and growing every day that will inexorably affect my ability to do that job.”

The debate over privacy and security is as old as the Constitution. One can reasonably understand that at times law enforcement, with the appropriate oversight, may need access to private data.

Many of the issues at play bring us back to a Clinton-era debate over what was known as the Clipper chip. With the rise of the Web, the National Security Agency was searching for a way to protect its electronic surveillance abilities. The Clipper Chip was a microcircuit that would “encrypt” data but also give the government access to the keys needed to unlock the data. The chip faced backlash from the public and was never put to use, setting an important precedent for encrypted communications.

The group’s conclusions mirror what private sector companies, who have been ramping up encryption efforts in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, have said for months.

U.S. law enforcement is finding itself in a bind of its own doing. If the government had not engaged in such broad and arguably overreaching surveillance tactics, it’s likely companies like Apple would not have had such a business incentive to release encrypted operating systems so quickly.