FBI director James Comey has responded to experts’ arguments his proposals to have forced back doors installed in encryption protocols are dangerous and impossible to implement, saying he’s “not sure they have really tried.”
As reported by The Intercept, Comey spoke at Senate Judiciary and Senate Intelligence Committee hearings on Wednesday about strong encryption, around which there is an ongoing and increasingly bitter debate between tech companies and the US and UK governments.
Strong encryption refers to the act of scrambling messages or data in such a way that they are impossible to understand without the correct key or password. Even law enforcement with a warrant can’t decrypt them, or the maker of the encryption software.
The technology is being increasingly implemented by tech companies like Apple and WhatsApp following government spying revelations fr exiled whistleblower Edward Snowden — frustrating law enforcement, who fear that large amounts of communications data they once had access to is “going dark.”
However, security experts counter, it is impossible to implement backdoors in encryption products without leaving them liable to abuse by criminals, hackers, and foreign spies. Besides consumer communications, strong encryption is also used to secure a vast array of online activities, including bank security and transferring confidential government information.
Earlier this week, a group of leading cryptographers and security experts published a paper damning proposals for back doors in encryption.”The costs would be substantial, the damage to innovation severe, and the consequences to economic growth difficult to predict,” it says. Bruce Schneier, one of the paper’s authors, told me that even trying to implement back doors would “destroy the internet.”
Nonetheless, law enforcement isn’t backing down. After warning in an op-ed earlier this week that encryption risks helping ISIS, Comey has cast doubts on the claims of experts who have condemned his proposals.
Comey told the Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that “a whole lot of good people have said it’s too hard … maybe that’s so … But my reaction to that is: I’m not sure they have really tried.”
The Intercept reports he told one senator: “Maybe the scientists are right. Ennnh, I’m not willing to give up on that yet.” He also warned that encryption was aiding pedophiles and terrorists at the hearings, according to the AP.
Despite Comey’s defiance, it’s difficult to see how the FBI can possibly win this one. Encryption products are already widely used, and would be all but impossible to stamp out. Apple CEO Tim Cook has called attempts to undermine encryption “incredibly dangerous,” and pointed out it’s highly unlikely he — and numerous other big tech companies — would agree to stop using it. Additionally, even if they did, there’s nothing to stop Americans simply downloading the software from abroad. (And that’s to say nothing on the massive financial and technological costs trying to impose a ban would incur.)
In a blog post published on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch also criticised the FBI’s proposals as setting a dangerous precedent around the world. “If the FBI forces tech companies to weaken their security, then why wouldn’t every other government demand the same, including those that equate dissent with terrorism. How comfortable would we be if Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia had back door access to Apple and Google devices?” it asks.
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