Debate is raging over tech companies’ use of encryption software to secure their users’ data — and the former head of the NSA isn’t on the side you might expect.
Michael Hayden, who ran the secretive US spy agency between 1999 and 2005, told a panel on Tuesday that he doesn’t support efforts to force companies to include “backdoors” for law enforcement in their products.
Since the Snowden revelations about US mass surveillance in 2013, companies like Apple and Google have increasingly introduced strong encryption into their products that even they cannot decrypt under any circumstances.
This has infuriated many in law enforcement, who fear that data is “going dark,” and that they are losing access to vital evidence. But security experts counter that any “backdoors” in software to let law enforcement bypass these security protections would be open to abuse and make users less safe. “You can’t build a backdoor that only the good guys can walk through,” cryptography expert Bruce Schneier says.
James Comey, head of the FBI, has been a particularly vocal critic of encryption, calling for tech companies to give law enforcement “front door” access to encrypted data to help tackle terrorist threats like ISIS. Europol chief Rob Wainwright has called encryption the “perhaps the biggest problem” in tackling terrorism.
Hayden thinks otherwise. “I disagree with Jim Comey,” he said, CNN reported. “I actually think end-to-end encryption is good for America.”
He explained: “I know encryption represents a particular challenge for the FBI … But on balance, I actually think it creates greater security for the American nation than the alternative: a backdoor.”
The fact that a backdoor exists would immediately make it a target, the argument goes, for everyone from mischievous hackers to organised criminals and sophisticated state-sponsored adversaries. And their efficacy would be questionable: There are plenty of encryption products already out there that don’t have backdoors, and are developed outside of Western jurisdictions. If necessary, criminals and terrorist would just move to one of these platforms instead.
The tech community is nearly unanimous in its opposition to backdoors, with Apple CEO Tim Cook a particularly vocal critic. At a recent White House summit he reportedly criticised the Obama administration for its lack of leadership on the issue and called on it to come out and make a “strong public statement” in support of encryption.
Michael Hayden has spoken out about alternatives to encryption backdoors before. In October 2015, discussing failed efforts to curtail encryption in the nineties, he said (via Motherboard): “in retrospect, we mastered the problem we created … We were able to do a whole bunch of other things. Some of the other things were metadata, and bulk collection and so on.”
The ex-NSA chief isn’t alone in the intelligence community in opposing attempts to weaken encryption. The former head of British spy agency MI5 Lord Jonathan Evans previously told Business Insider that he thinks inserting backdoors is “not the answer” because of the risk they could be exploited by others.