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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.
“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.