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Posted under: Tech Policy

The Folly Of Federal Backdoors To Encryption

Attorney General Barr says tech companies need to make encrypted messages accessible to law enforcement.

In recent years, there have been a number of mass tragedies that have been burned into the collective psyche of the United States. One of the most horrible was the infamous terrorist attack that took place in San Bernardino, California, on December 2, 2015. This is when Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, a married couple with Pakistani roots, targeted a San Bernardino County Department of Public Health training event and Christmas party in a mass shooting and attempted bombing. When the smoke cleared, 14 people were dead, and 22 others were injured. Four hours later, the couple was gunned down in their rented Ford Expedition after a shootout with police. 

In the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting, a federal judge asked tech giant Apple to assist the FBI in its investigation by helping the Bureau unlock one of the phones belonging to the couple. Apple famously refused to do so, with CEO Tim Cook taking to the Internet to explain why in a letter. He told readers that the FBI wanted Apple to write a code known as a “backdoor” for the iPhone that would circumvent the built-in encrypted security features. Cook wrote that Apple was opposed to such an idea because “in the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.”

Eventually, the Department of Justice was able to find its way into the iPhone in question on its own and access the data. Though it has not been explicitly stated that it’s in relation to Apple, Attorney General Bill Barr has embarked on a mission to require tech companies to create backdoors, so law enforcement can gain access to encrypted messages easier. His rationale is that law enforcement’s inability to tap communications between dangerous individuals/organizations poses a major threat to public safety and national security.

“Warrant-proof encryption is also seriously impairing our ability to monitor and combat domestic and foreign terrorists,” Barr said in a recent keynote address at the International Conference on Cyber Security in New York. “As with drug cartels, we are seeing terrorist organizations moving their communications to encrypted platforms designed to block lawful access. Even smaller terrorist groups and ‘lone wolf’ actors have turned increasingly to encryption.”

As stated before, the powers that be are looking for a way around encrypted messages, which has been gaining steam on the market in recent years. In response to the abuses of access by intelligence services spelled out in Edward Snowden’s damning 2013 exposures, companies, such as Apple, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, have incorporated encrypted messaging into their products/platforms to protect users. You’ve probably heard of the term “encryption,” but you may not understand what it means. It’s a simple concept to grasp.

“So encryption is basically a way to twist what you said, so it’s unreadable and unable to revert back to the original text unless you’re the end user who has a key,” an anonymous developer for Xessages, a (Black-owned) private text messaging app for iPhone, told Don Diva Magazine. “Encryption is driven off of these things called keys. When you send a message, it’s like you’re locking your door and you’re going away, and decryption is like when you unlock a door [and] come back in.”

In his letter, Tim Cook expounded on this sentiment, saying that giving the feds a backdoor to encryption “would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes.”

There are a few reasons why giving the government backdoors could be detrimental to society. For one, there are scores of Americans who don’t trust the government with that kind of access to their privacy. Though Barr is implying that the backdoors would be used to fight terrorism, who’s to say that they would stop there? There are probably many who would agree with Senator Ron Wyden’s rebuttal to this measure.

“If we give this attorney general and this president the unprecedented power to break encryption across the board burrow into the most intimate details of every American’s life – they will abuse those powers,” he said. 

Additionally, Barr is ignoring the fact that hackers and cybercriminals are in the world, who are constantly looking for access to people’s personal information. The recent cybersecurity breaches at Equifax and Capital One are proof of that. If companies create backdoor codes for law enforcement, dastardly tech whizzes could feasibly learn it, then use it to compromise information that is vital to unsuspecting users. Hackers would be given access to messages, financial data and health records. They could track people’s location or access the microphone and/or camera in a device. It’s a real Doomsday scenario when you think about it, but it would be entirely possible with the existence of backdoors. 

Barr seems to be aware of the potential risks to personal safety, but he has suggested that national security is a more pressing issue than protecting individuals, no matter the cost.

“Some argue that, to achieve at best a slight incremental improvement in security, it is worth imposing a massive cost on society in the form of degraded safety,” he said. He deemed the risk tolerable because “we are talking about consumer products and services such as messaging, smart phones, email, and voice and data applications,” and “not talking about protecting the nation’s nuclear launch codes.”

Attorney General Barr seems to be out of touch and a tad delusional with this mission of his. As stated earlier, the DOJ was eventually able to access the phone used in the San Bernardino attack. This suggests that cracking the encryption is a possibility for law enforcement, but Barr is treating it like it’s impossible. Also, if all Americans were polled, there would probably be more of us worried about our personal data being stolen than a terrorist attack. It’s not like there’s a terrorist attack every day; however, the vulnerability of our data is a day-to-day concern. Furthermore, would the feds even be watching the right people? Given law enforcement’s history, they would seem to be more prone to use backdoors on Black and/or brown people than volatile white men who have become synonymous with mass shootings (and somehow not labeled terrorists). In the parlance of our time, Barr’s quest is a dub.

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Roger Roman is an entrepreneur, investor and marketing consultant for technology-driven startups. He is a 2x founder and currently serves as the Managing Partner of Push Consulting & Marketing, a growth marketing, and business development consulting agency. He currently resides in Los Angeles, CA with is his wife Mary and his three-year-old son Roger III.