Charlie Savage reported Monday in the New York Times that the Obama administration is seeking legislation that would require “back-doors” in all encryption products and services in the US. Of course, they cite terrorism as a primary motivation.
How best to balance the needs of law enforcement (and of government in general) with the privacy and liberty of the citizen is an age-old question. While I sympathize with the needs of law enforcement, the Internet wiretap plan simply will not accomplish its stated purpose.
When privacy advocates complain about video surveillance or airport screenings, the counter-argument has always been “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about.” (That argument assumes that law enforcement officers will use those systems only for their intended purposes, but we’ll leave that aside for now.) The point is that when you’re securing a place—a bank or airport, for example—the security measures apply equally to everyone who goes to that place.
But it’s different when you’re dealing with things. If you mandate that a certain type of thing T must have property P, and it’s illegal to make or possess a T without P, then law-abiding manufacturers will make their Ts with P, and law-abiding citizens will use Ts with P. But what’s to stop a criminal or terrorist from importing their Ts from a country without the stupid P-law? This turns the table to the bad guys’ advantage in two important ways.
First, the world already has robust, unbreakable, back-door-free encryption technology. The criminals will just use that. As with gun control legislation or nuclear non-proliferation treaties, if you outlaw strong encryption, only outlaws will have strong encryption.
Second, if a back door exists, the bad guys will figure out how to exploit it. History proves that. So not only will the bad guys have strong encryption that even the government can’t break, but the good guys will be forced to use encryption that the bad guys can break. It will be that much easier for them to steal money and identities. The law-abiding citizen and the government alike will be powerless to stop them.
So if this bill becomes law, it will accomplish precisely the opposite of its stated purpose. The government will still be powerless to eavesdrop on criminal and terrorist communications. Meanwhile, the good, honest citizen will be rendered powerless as well. That’s a situation truly to be terrified of.