The Obama Administration recently announced that it would not seek a legislative solution to mandate encryption backdoors. While privacy advocates consider the move a slight win, many in law enforcement are upset by this news. They shouldn’t be. In this golden age of surveillance, law enforcement should be content with the fact that it has never been easier to spy on the bad guys.
FBI Director James Comey recently expressed concerns that parts of the Internet are “going dark”– simply put, becoming snoop-proof — and imperiling the job of law enforcement agencies. These concerns are entirely misplaced. Pervasive streams of digital data have left law enforcement and the intelligence community with better access to more information than ever before. Therefore, their job of catching bad guys has been made considerably easier.
It has also never been easier for the good guys to protect themselves. That’s why encryption needs to remain secure. As Sunday Yokubaitis, president of the tech firm Golden Frog, has noted, encryption is the “Second Amendment for the Internet.” Encryption is maligned as a tool for criminals, but guns fall into the same category.
Should we install “off switches” in Americans’ guns in order to deactivate them on command? How about tracking devices that allow law enforcement to keep tabs on gun owners? Such a system would certainly permit law enforcement a more efficient way to deal with criminals. After all, if you have nothing to hide, why not support such a secure method of compliance?
Weakening online security doesn’t give a special golden key only to the “good guys.” Americans would be much less secure with an Internet that relied on weakened encryption. Imagine the prospect of knowing that your online transactions –- whether through Amazon or online banking tools -– aren’t truly secure.
Although valid concerns exist about the availability of secure communications to criminals, law enforcement does not lack solutions.
Take the case of Nicodemo Scarfo, son of a former Philadelphia mob boss. He was targeted by the FBI in 2001 for a series of crimes ranging from loan-sharking to gambling. Known as “Mr. Macintosh” thanks to his computer-savvy crime operations, Scarfo had encrypted his computer, as well as files that contained data about his illicit activities. The FBI obtained a warrant for a wiretap and other recording devices to be installed in Scarfo’s home. Agents were then able to capture a copy of Scarfo’s encryption password, through use of a “key logger,” as he typed it. And so justice was served.
No matter how strong encryption might be, the human element is always the weak link in the chain of investigation. Law enforcement simply needs to exploit that deficiency through covert human intelligence operations – as they have always done. Law enforcement officers are always in a position to capitalize on human mistakes in order to obtain the necessary evidence to prosecute criminal acts, even when the target uses encryption.
National security is a major — and legitimate — concern for conservatives. However, law enforcement fear-mongering has created a climate of panic where encryption is seen as “a tool of terrorists,” shrouding them in secrecy. But encryption, like a gun, is simply a tool. Like a gun, encryption can be used for good or evil. If we accept the FBI’s fears and base policy on the worst-case scenarios about encryption, we’ll miss out on its many benefits. In turn, this could deal a significant blow to the security and prosperity of average Americans.
Mandatory back doors would harm our economic vitality and leave U.S. firms vulnerable to foreign espionage and cyber attacks. Any back door that law enforcement can access can be accessed by others. Any vulnerability that the FBI can use to break encrypted communications can be exploited by the Chinese, Russians, or any number of malicious hackers bent on acquiring personal or financial information. Supporting strong, unweakened encryption isn’t a partisan issue: it’s one of national security.
Former intelligence officials agree.
Michael Chertoff (a former secretary of Homeland Security), Gen. Michael Hayden (a former director of national intelligence, the NSA, and CIA), and Michael Leiter (a former director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center) have all come out against the mandated installation of backdoors. Just as the scales fell from Saul’s eyes on the road to Damascus, these former high-level intelligence officials have also seen the light. Conservatives should follow their lead and renounce government attempts to weaken online security.
Conservatives need to make sure that unfounded security worries don’t hamper the vitality of the modern economy. The modern digital economy’s explosive growth is a great example of conservative free-market principles at work. But without a secure Internet based on strong encryption, the innovation driving the growth of the digital economy will be imperiled.
A secure Internet is a strong Internet. A strong Internet contributes to America’s strength and economic might. Weakening encryption weakens the Internet, which weakens America. Support for strong encryption is support for a strong America.
Op-ed by Ryan Hagemann; originally published in RealClearTechnology