We’ve been waiting for President Obama to deliver an official statement on his administration’s position on encryption, and now we have it. At the annual SXSW conference in Austin last weekend, the president made it clear that he is siding firmly with law enforcement.
Ever since the fall of 2015, pro-encryption and privacy advocates have been anxiously awaiting a response to a White House petition demanding the administration take a stand in favor of strong encryption. The initial response was, at best, tepidly noncommittal. While the president’s most recent statement falls short of affirmative support for backdoor access, it certainly isn’t the response to the Save Crypto petition campaign advocates hoped for.
The president likened the use of strong encryption to the accepted law enforcement practice of rifling through underwear, as well as the usual red herrings of child pornographers and terrorists. Despite the president’s anti-absolutist policy position, the simple fact remains that encryption is either strong and secure or weak and insecure. There is no middle ground. That point has been reiterated, time and time again, by the world’s leading cryptographers and the need for strong encryption has been staunchly defended by various advocacy organizations. (If you need to be quickly brought up to speed on the issues at play in this debate, John Oliver had a great segment on encryption on Sunday.)
It’s now clear that we’re in for a long standoff, even as new fronts in the Crypto Wars open up.
In addition to the dispute between the FBI and Apple, federal prosecutors are now taking aim at WhatsApp. It seems that the Obama administration’s Justice Department has unofficially declared all-out war on Silicon Valley. But it’s a war they cannot win. Here are a few reasons why.
First, over two-thirds of all encrypted platforms are produced in foreign nations — nations that are unconstrained by the laws of the United States. Passing laws curtailing encryption here at home — or in any country for that matter—won’t do anything to keep encryption out of the hands of criminals and terrorists.
Second, the digital economy needs strong encryption. As I noted in a recent study, as the digital economy continues to grow, so will the demand for strong encryption. Whether it’s online banking, consumer purchases on Amazon, or any number of other online transactions, your financial information is kept secure with encrypted protocols.
Last, there’s the simple reality that we can’t turn back the clock on technological progress. The genie is out the bottle, and not even the awesome power of the United States government can put it back in.
While it’s clear law enforcement is facing unprecedented challenges in an age of ubiquitous encryption, it is a mistake to consider encryption a “problem” that needs to be solved. Maintaining both online and national security will require inventive and creative solutions from lawmakers and privacy advocates, but casting encryption as the antagonist takes us further from a resolution. Rather than focusing myopically on one security protocol, the discussion of data security and privacy in the digital age needs to be broadened.
President Obama had an opportunity to clinch a victory for strong encryption. Instead, in his final year as commander-in-chief, he elected a legacy that saddles the American people with the enduring burden of an exhausting yet fruitless debate. As a great progressive rock band once sang, “welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends.” The second Crypto War is now in full swing.
Op-ed by Ryan Hagemann; originally in the Washington Examiner