An encryption backdoor is a lousy idea

The recent column by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg…executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Re/code.

Protecting the security of the United States and of Americans abroad is no easy task, especially against terrorists. I got a lesson in this before I became a tech columnist, when I served stretches as the chief Pentagon correspondent and the National Security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, including coverage of the intelligence agencies.

So, I’m somewhat sympathetic with the frustrations expressed over the past year or so by national security officials — especially FBI Director James Comey — over fears that encryption of digital devices and services is making it harder for their agencies to spot and stop terrorists in the digital age…

I understand their exasperation, but not their proposed solution: Forcing American companies, notably Apple and Google, to build “backdoors” into their encrypted smartphones that would allow the government access. This would be a huge change, because both companies have introduced whole-device encryption that even they can’t decrypt. It would also be a huge mistake.

Over the past year or so, Mr. Comey and his colleagues have complained that this encryption of smartphones by Apple and Google is causing a problem they call “going dark” — making it harder for them to conduct surveillance of smartphones, messaging services and more.

The problem is that, even if the FBI served the companies with a legal court-approved search warrant for particular encrypted phones, they couldn’t comply. The lawmen would have to serve the warrant on the phones’ owners, and try and force them to unlock the devices with a password, fingerprint or some other authentication method…

But now, following the horrific terror attack in Paris, the issue is showing signs of coming back to life…Add in the massacre in San Bernadino, California, and we all know what we can expect from the amalgamation of security hawks and craven politicians.

Apple CEO Tim Cook posted a statement on a special privacy section of Apple’s web site, saying, in part: “I want to be absolutely clear that we have never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will.”

He followed that up recently. In October, he told a tech conference that “I don’t know a way to protect people without encrypting” and “you can’t have a backdoor that’s only for the good guys…”

It’s fair to note that, in addition to protecting their customers, Apple and Google get business benefits from strong and secure encryption. They gain the ability to remove themselves from delicate law enforcement actions. And they gain protection against charges overseas that buying their products will give the U.S. government access to foreign users’ data.

They also have plenty of support for their views from people with no such business interests…

For another, Mr. Comey’s complaints are overblown. Even without a backdoor, there are still many avenues that authorities can use to track terrorists…

I sincerely hope that the U.S. government, working with tech companies, can come up with some solution that helps catch terrorists and criminals who use smartphones and messaging services to disguise their plans and identities. I wish I could say what that might be. But I do know that it shouldn’t be one that weakens or destroys user-controlled smartphone encryption.

Walt Mossberg is someone I appreciate and often agree with on technology. Not so often on politics. It’s a pleasure to say he’s nailed both this time.

One thought on “An encryption backdoor is a lousy idea

  1. drugsandotherthings says:

    Well, I have to say…unless it’s all some big show by the government- I’m quite happy that there seems to be *some* encryption available to the public that the government can’t crack.

    But Google still gives me the heebie-jeebies. *YOU* ARE THEIR PRODUCT. The same cn be said for the majority of the tech companies, except strangely enough, Apple.

    I do believe that for the vast majority of Americans- they have far more to fear from the privacy invasions of the tech companies then they do from government (not to condone the governments wishes for equal or greater access).

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