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The Encryption Haters

Coded, secret, encrypted technology is a boon for the privacy world. For security officials and government figures, it is perceived to be the enemy, the retarding effect against decent law enforcement, policing and general terrorist detection.

The fear on their part is ubiquity, encryption’s democratic tendency: Any one of us can download encryption programs and employ it in the context of communications. Telegram, one such platform, is supposedly being used by Islamic State, though it has been suggested by Dan Frookin at The Intercept that communications between the terror suspects behind the Paris attacks did not use encrypted technologies.

That fact has not deterred officialdom aggrieved that individuals, who seem to have been communicating in the clear light of day, managed to plan their attacks under the noses of some of the most supposedly sophisticated surveillance networks. Because they were not detected in time, they must have been undetectable all along, looming large in the dark.

Instead of learning from that school of hard knocks, the establishment reaction to the Paris attacks has been one that will have lawyers and civil liberty defenders mounting the soapbox in dismay. Law makers are wondering if encryption – its impenetrable use – was the problem to begin with. From Washington to Paris, legislators are now chewing over the issue that is, in reality, a non-issue in any democratic context: Do we undermine encryption altogether?

This mentality was already evident in the words of Robert Litt, legal denizen for the Officer of the Director of National Intelligence. Having taken a battering on the encryption front from those tedious defenders of liberty, he expressed views in a September email that he, and his frustrated colleagues, were facing a “legislative environment” which was “very hostile”. That said, “it could turn in the event of a terrorist attack or a criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement.”

The point missed here is that banning such technology will be akin to putting cooking knives away because they can be used to cut up the neighbour. Mechanisms, not in themselves moral or otherwise, will always be put to some nefarious use.

Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer of Counterpane Internet Security Inc. of Cupertino, California, made the salient if trite observation back in August 2003 (Computer News) that, “Infrastructure is used by good guys and bad guys. There are so many more good guys than bad and we’re better off with the infrastructure than without it.”

The sentiment against solid encryption means that intelligence agencies are not doing what they had previously done: cultivate local contacts, establish trails, create networks of contacts.

More government access means total access; nudging the argument in favour of snooping loses the basis for viable privacy. It means that data get easier to pilfer, making commercial pillage in the digital world irresistible. Companies such as Apple and Google, who have provided consumers the means to encrypt their data on iPhones and Android phones, will provide resistance, concerned that they will lose their patrons. US companies are under enough pressure as it is about how reliable their means of holding information on consumers is.

Then come those activists who, working in dangerous environments, utilise such encryption in their communications to harry governments, or at the very least exist under them with some modicum of safety. The reasons behind Philip Zimmermann’s creation of Pretty Good Privacy, a public key encryption scheme for email, was the offspring of peace activism.

Human Rights Watch, in a news release on June 17 this year, also emphasised that governments should encourage “the use of strong encryption and protect anonymous expression online. In an era of unprecedentedly broad and intrusive government surveillance, these tools often offer the only safe way for people in repressive environments to express themselves freely.” In this regard, supposedly free world defenders align themselves with the police state philosophers, mistrusting activists as potential lawbreakers and terrorists.

The CIA Director, John Brennan, has been undertaking his own crusade against the encryption defenders. Before the Centre for Strategic International Studies, he claimed that, “There are a lot of technological capabilities that are available right now that make it exceptionally difficult, both technically as well as legally, for intelligence security services to have the insight they need to uncover it.”

What Brennan fails to mention is that the National Security Agency has, for years, attempted to undermine end-to-end encryption, encouraging inferior technologies, tapping into existing ones, and encouraging friendly intelligence agencies to do the same. It has discouraged human agency on its own part over technological usage on the part of everybody else. Sloth has replaced incentive.

FBI Director James Comey and New York City Police commissioner Bill Bratton have also made similar points, with the latter claiming that, “We’re seeing it everyday where we are losing the ability to gather intelligence.” Senator John McCain (R-Ariz) has decided to bite the bullet on that score and suggest the availability of back door access. “It’s time we had another key that would be kept safe and only revealed by means of a court order.”

The final point here is one of possibility. You cannot stop encryption, notably commercial encryption. You can retard technologies to your disadvantage, implementing local bans, and inhibiting the take up at a domestic level. (At best, this would only succeed in a very limited way.) The result is the advantaging of others. The great dilemma lies there, and the security conscious communities might end up rendering themselves unconscious in this enterprise.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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