Encryption with backdoors is worse than useless -- it's dangerous

In the debate over strong encryption, it’s clear the feds don’t understand what they’re saying

Last week FBI Director James Comey testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee about the use of encryption among terrorist groups. For anyone who understands the critical role that encryption plays in the Internet and our private data networks, many of the exchanges between Comey and the senators on the panel were not only revealing, but rather disturbing.

Examples abound, but a few stick out. For instance, while discussing various types of encryption on data communications and devices, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said this:

It strikes me as irresponsible and perhaps worse for a company to design a product that would intentionally prevent them from complying with a lawful court order.

By this he appears to mean that he would expect that anything that was encrypted should be able to be decrypted without the actual keys at the request of a U.S. court. Director Comey clearly agreed:

I don't understand the demand for people who would want encryption that couldn't be decrypted at the order of an American judge.

On the other side of the pond, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has said he wants to either ban strong encryption or require backdoors to be placed into any encryption code to allow law enforcement to decrypt any data at any time.

The fact that these officials are even having this discussion is a bald demonstration that they do not understand encryption or how critical it is for modern life. They're missing a key point: The moment you force any form of encryption to contain a backdoor, that form of encryption is rendered useless. If a backdoor exists, it will be exploited by criminals. This is not a supposition, but a certainty. It's not an American judge that we're worried about. It's the criminals looking for exploits.

We use strong encryption every single day. We use it on our banking sites, shopping sites, and social media sites. We protect our credit card information with encryption. We encrypt our databases containing sensitive information (or at least we should). Our economy relies on strong encryption to move money around in industries large and small.

Many high-visibility sites, such as Twitter, Google, Reddit, and YouTube, default to SSL/TLS encryption now. When there were bugs in the libraries that support this type of encryption, the IT world moved heaven and earth to patch them and eliminate the vulnerability. Security pros were sweating bullets for the hours, days, and in some cases weeks between the hour Heartbleed was revealed and the hour they could finally get their systems patched -- and now politicians with no grasp of the ramifications want to introduce a fixed vulnerability into these frameworks. They are threatening the very foundations of not only Internet commerce, but the health and security of the global economy.

Put simply, if backdoors are required in encryption methods, the Internet would essentially be destroyed, and billions of people would be put at risk for identity theft, bank and credit card fraud, and any number of other horrible outcomes. Those of us who know how the security sausage is made are appalled that this is a point of discussion at any level, much less nationally on two continents. It’s abhorrent to consider.

The general idea coming from these camps is that terrorists use encryption to communicate. Thus, if there are backdoors, then law enforcement can eavesdrop on those communications. Leaving aside the massive vulnerabilities that would be introduced on everyone else, it’s clear that the terrorists could very easily modify their communications to evade those types of encryption or set up alternative communication methods. We would be creating holes in the protection used for trillions of transactions, all for naught.

Citizens of a city do not give the police the keys to their houses. We do not register our bank account passwords with the FBI. We do not knowingly or specifically allow law enforcement to listen and record our phone calls and Internet communications (though that hasn’t seemed to matter). We should definitely not crack the foundation of secure Internet communications with a backdoor that will only be exploited by criminals or the very terrorists that we’re supposedly trying to thwart.

Remember, if the government can lose an enormous cache of extraordinarily sensitive, deeply personal information on millions of its own employees, one can only wonder what horrors would be visited upon us if it somehow succeeded in destroying encryption as well.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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