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“If you halt or weaken en­cryp­tion, the peo­ple you hurt are not the folks whowant to do bad things”

Abat­tle is tak­ing place be­tween gov­ern­ments and tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies over en­cryp­tion. Gov­ern­ments want tech­nol­ogy firms to build back­doors into their soft­ware, ar­gu­ing the strong en­cryp­tion used in mo­bile de­vices makes it hard for se­cu­rity agen­cies to mon­i­tor against ter­ror­ist at­tack. Tech­nol­ogy firms ar­gue that en­cryp­tion is es­sen­tial to pro­tect en­ter­prise and con­sumer users against ID theft and other on­line threats. “I don’t know a way to pro­tect peo­ple with­out en­crypt­ing”, Ap­ple CEO, Tim Cook said. “You can’t have a back­door that’s only for the good guys… Any back­door is a back­door for ev­ery­one”.

Ap­ple, Mi­crosoft, Google, Ya­hoo and oth­ers are at present op­pos­ing th­ese at­tempts to en­able mass sur­veil­lance on anti-terror grounds, rais­ing ar­gu­ments that seem to have won a re­prieve in the US. Not so in the UK, where the cur­rent gov­ern­ment is in­tro­duc­ing the In­ves­ti­ga­tory Pow­ers Bill. Dubbed a ‘Snooper’s Char­ter’ by crit­ics and blocked by Lib­eral Democrats dur­ing the last par­lia­ment, this re­quires tech firms and ser­vice providers to sup­ply un­en­crypted com­mu­ni­ca­tions to po­lice or spy agen­cies if re­quired through a war­rant. It also re­quires in­ter­net and com­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies to keep cus­tomer us­age records for up to a year and al­lows bulk sur­veil­lance of the pop­u­la­tion. The In­for­ma­tion Tech­nol­ogy In­dus­try Coun­cil, which rep­re­sents 62 of the world’s big­gest tech com­pa­nies, is against the pro­pos­als: “En­cryp­tion is a se­cu­rity tool we rely on ev­ery­day to stop crim­i­nals from drain­ing our bank ac­counts, to shield our cars and air­planes from be­ing taken over by ma­li­cious hacks, and to oth­er­wise pre­serve our se­cu­rity and safety”, it said.

En­cryp­tion isn’t the prov­ince of ma­jor tech­nol­ogy firms – there are plenty of smaller al­ter­na­tives, mean­ing any at­tempt to weaken it will have lit­tle ef­fect. “If you halt or weaken en­cryp­tion, the peo­ple that you hurt are not the folks that want to do bad things. It’s the good peo­ple. The other peo­ple know where to go”, says Tim Cook.

Not ev­ery­one agrees. FBR an­a­lyst Daniel Ives told In­vestor’s Busi­ness Daily: “a lot of ma­li­cious ac­tors over the last year have com­mu­ni­cated through en­cryp­tion and it’s really cre­ated a lot of chal­lenges for law en­force­ment”.

In de­fence of en­cryp­tion

Oth­ers point out that data and iden­tity theft are prob­lems that have sig­nif­i­cant reper­cus­sions and en­cryp­tion is a key de­fence for end users. “When you make a credit card pay­ment or log into Face­book, you’re us­ing the same fun­da­men­tal en­cryp­tion that, in an­other con­ti­nent, an ac­tivist could be us­ing to or­ga­nize a protest against a failed regime”, wrote Beirut‑born soft­ware de­vel­oper, Nadim Kobeissi. “I can­not back­door soft­ware to specif­i­cally spy on ji­hadists with­out this back­door ap­ply­ing to ev­ery sin­gle mem­ber of so­ci­ety re­ly­ing on my soft­ware”.

Tech­nol­o­gists and pri­vacy ad­vo­cates ar­gue that if gov­ern­ment gets its way pre­designed weak­nesses in the soft­ware we use will be ex­ploited. Hack­ers will un­der­mine any back­doors and use them to get what­ever they want – your credit card de­tails, for ex­am­ple, or even to take con­trol of elec­tric­ity sub­sta­tions. Ap­ple’s CEO said: “You can’t weaken cryp­tog­ra­phy. You need

to strengthen it. You need to stay ahead of the folks that want to break it”.

Part of the prob­lem en­cryp­tion aims to solve – a so­lu­tion un­der­mined by in­clud­ing back­doors – is the in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated at­tacks used by cy­ber­crim­i­nals. Com­pa­nies al­ready track vast amounts of per­sonal in­for­ma­tion about us as we use ap­pli­ca­tions and browse the web. “Th­ese invisible con­nec­tions are in­creas­ingly used by cy­ber­crim­i­nals to dis­trib­ute mal­ware, steal confidential per­sonal and busi­ness in­for­ma­tion, dam­age property, and en­gage in iden­tity theft”, warns Casey Op­pen­heim of Dis­con­nect Me.

iMes­sage ban?

“We live in an un­prece­dented era of on­line per­sonal data, and as a re­sult law en­force­ment has ac­cess to an un­prece­dented amount of on­line per­sonal data”, says Duck­DuckGo CEO, Gabriel Wein­berg.

Se­cu­rity ex­perts have ac­cused David Cameron of “liv­ing in cloud cuckoo land” when he has sug­gested en­crypted mes­sag­ing apps like iMes­sage should be banned. They say the prob­lem with the ap­proach is that if tech firms are forced to cre­ate back­doors, ad­vanced users (in­clud­ing crim­i­nals) will use al­ter­na­tive so­lu­tions, such as un­trace­able Vir­tual Pri­vate Net­work tools. Ter­ror­ists will be­come more so­phis­ti­cated, but ev­ery­day users will be more ex­posed to threat.

Ter­ror­ists will get more

so­phis­ti­cated, but ev­ery­day users will be more ex­posed to threat.

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