It appears that a misunderstanding of encryption is not limited to the right side of the aisle. At the last Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton proposed a “Manhattan-like project” for dealing with the issue of encryption. She argued:
It doesn’t do anybody any good if terrorists can move toward encrypted communication that no law enforcement agency can break into before or after. There must be some way. I don’t know enough about the technology, Martha, to be able to say what it is, but I have a lot of confidence in our tech experts.
While a Manhattan Project for Encryption might serve as a good soundbite, the practical considerations involved in such an undertaking make it an ineffective policy solution to the “going dark” debate. As my colleague Matt Fay points out:
It’s fine to suggest that we should get a bunch of smart people into a room together to think about an issue like encryption, but there really is no comparison between it and the scale and cost of building the first atomic bomb. The latter required a sprawling physical infrastructure and cost $2 billion at the time ($26 billion in 2015 dollars). Moreover, the Manhattan Project took place during the most devastating war in human history and the urgency with which it was pursued was based on fears that Nazi Germany was on its way to building an atomic bomb of its own. The two issues are simply not comparable in the level of effort demanded and set of skills needed.
Besides, House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul has already announced his intention to propose legislation aimed at the creation of a commission on encryption. This commission would involve stakeholders from the tech sector, civil society and nonprofit organizations, cryptographers and technologists, and the law enforcement community. Bringing together informed individuals from these communities is a reasonable first step towards coming to common ground on the encryption debate. A government-led research program aimed at finding a magic solution to an issue that, despite FBI director James Comey’s recent statements, is not a “business model” problem but a technical one, is unlikely to amount to anything but wasted time and money.
Clinton herself made it clear that she “didn’t know enough about the technology” to offer any sort of solution. That’s ironic, because if she did have a firmer grasp on the technical hurdles that would have to be overcome to make a backdoor into encryption a feasible option, she would clearly align herself with the pro-encryption camp and discount any possible solution involving mandatory security vulnerabilities or this ridiculous “Manhattan-like project.”
Why, one might ask? As my colleagues at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, TechFreedom, Access Now, and others have repeatedly pointed out (in addition to arguments I’ve made here, here, and here), backdoors are simply a non-starter from a technical standpoint, to say nothing of the deleterious ramifications of privacy, civil liberties, and the digital economy. But it’s not just civil society organizations that are opposed to these types of proposals. Apple CEO Tim Cook, appearing on last night’s 60 Minutes, explained why he and his company, among many others, are refusing to support backdoors into encryption:
There are intimate conversations with your family, or your co-workers. There’s probably business secrets and you should have the ability to protect it. And the only way we know how to do that, is to encrypt it. Why is that? It’s because if there’s a way to get in, then somebody will find the way in. There have been people that suggest that we should have a back door. But the reality is if you put a back door in, that back door’s for everybody, for good guys and bad guys.
Christian Dawson, the co-founder of the Internet Infrastructure (i2) Coalition, agrees, arguing that there are significant costs to small and medium-sized Internet-based businesses in complying with a backdoor mandate:
The ability to build an Internet or cloud company in one’s basement, garage, or dorm room has been the key to Internet innovation and the economy built on top of it. Encryption backdoors – if they worked at all – wouldn’t scale downward. We could lose the innovation economy as we ratchet up the requirements of who can build a cloud company.
Instead of supporting a massive new multi-billion dollar government-funded project to try tampering with the underlying security of the Internet, Clinton and other policymakers should profess a greater degree of intellectual humility when dealing with issues they clearly do not understand.