In fight on terror, en­cryp­tion is a dou­ble-edged sword

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - By Rob Lever

En­cryp­tion can be a ter­ror­ist’s tool. But it’s also a key for those hunt­ing at­tack­ers, and for many oth­ers. The tech­nol­ogy for en­cryp­tion can keep data and con­ver­sa­tions pri­vate, making it a dou­ble-edged sword that can equally be used by democ­racy cam­paign­ers, law en­force­ment or vi­o­lent ex­trem­ists. The Nov 13 at­tacks in Paris spurred calls for bet­ter tools for in­ves­ti­ga­tors to track crim­i­nals who rely on en­crypted com­mu­ni­ca­tions. But no so­lu­tion is read­ily avail­able that would avoid ma­jor im­pacts on pri­vacy, civil lib­er­ties and a wide range of on­line com­mu­ni­ca­tions in­clud­ing elec­tronic commerce.

The US gov­ern­ment is both a sup­porter of en­cryp­tion - fund­ing projects aimed at help­ing pro-democ­racy activists - while at the same time press­ing for ways to gain ac­cess to en­crypted data for cer­tain in­ves­ti­ga­tions. “That schizophre­nia is in­her­ent in the NSA (Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency) it­self,” said Sascha Mein­rath, who heads the dig­i­tal rights group X-Lab. “The NSA is tasked both to se­cure our com­mu­ni­ca­tions and to sur­vey our com­mu­ni­ca­tions.” In­ter­est in en­cryp­tion has been grow­ing since rev­e­la­tions in doc­u­ments leaked in 2013 by for­mer US in­tel­li­gence con­trac­tor Ed­ward Snow­den de­scrib­ing the NSA’s vast abil­i­ties to sweep up data. But of­fi­cials from the CIA, NSA and FBI as well as law­mak­ers and lo­cal law en­force­ment lead­ers have com­plained that they are “go­ing dark,” un­able to tap into new en­crypted apps and smart­phones which may be locked down with keys avail­able only to users.

‘We Need Sil­i­con Val­ley’

Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Hil­lary Clin­ton joined the de­bate, say­ing “we should take the con­cerns of law en­force­ment and coun­tert­er­ror­ism pro­fes­sion­als se­ri­ously”. “They have warned that im­pen­e­tra­ble en­cryp­tion may pre­vent them from ac­cess­ing ter­ror­ist com­mu­ni­ca­tions and pre­vent­ing a fu­ture at­tack.” Clin­ton said Thurs­day that “we need Sil­i­con Val­ley not to view gov­ern­ment as its ad­ver­sary”. “We need to chal­lenge our best minds in the pri­vate sec­tor to work with our best minds in the pub­lic sec­tor to de­velop so­lu­tions that will both keep us safe and pro­tect our pri­vacy,” she said. But tech­nol­ogy spe­cial­ists in the pri­vate sec­tor ar­gue that any “back door” al­low­ing au­thor­i­ties to gain ac­cess to en­crypted data, could also be ex­ploited by a hacker, or used by re­pres­sive regimes as well as demo­cratic ones. “Any­time you in­tro­duce a back door you can’t just pro­gram it so only one en­tity can grab that data,” said Mike Janke, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Silent Cir­cle, an app fea­tured on a “safe” list re­cently cir­cu­lated by the Is­lamic State or­ga­ni­za­tion. “Hack­ers can get into it bet­ter than any­body.”

Pres­sure to Act

Tech­nol­ogy play­ers de­fend the prin­ci­ples of en­cryp­tion, say­ing it is le­git­i­mately used to keep data confidential by For­tune 500 com­pa­nies, gov­ern­ment lead­ers, jour­nal­ists and dis­si­dents around the world. Mein­rath said en­cryp­tion “is one of the world’s most used tech­nolo­gies for rout­ing around cen­sor­ship. It en­ables mil­lions of peo­ple to ac­cess in­for­ma­tion and news that they would oth­er­wise not see.” The US gov­ern­ment has ac­knowl­edged this need by fund­ing projects for se­cure and en­crypted com­mu­ni­ca­tions through the Open Tech­nol­ogy Fund led by Ra­dio Free Asia, and which Mein­rath has ad­vised. Il­lus­trat­ing the com­plex­ity of the is­sue, how­ever, the fund pro­vided more than $1.3 mil­lion to the Open Whis­per project whose Redphone and Sig­nal apps have been deemed “safe” by IS for its mem­bers to use.

The US mil­i­tary also cre­ated the Tor net­work for en­crypted com­mu­ni­ca­tions, which was de­vel­oped for se­cret mil­i­tary com­mu­ni­ca­tions but is also used now for un­der­ground “Darknet” mar­kets. Un­der pres­sure to act fol­low­ing the Paris at­tacks, Silent Cir­cle and oth­ers took some steps to make it harder for ter­ror­ists to use their ser­vices. Janke told AFP the Swiss-based com­pany was “en­act­ing more ag­gres­sive back-end pay­ment tech­nol­ogy to re­duce the like­li­hood of evil­do­ers” like IS us­ing the ser­vice. Tele­gram, a se­cure com­mu­ni­ca­tions app cre­ated by Rus­sian In­ter­net guru Pavel Durov, said it had blocked dozens of ac­counts as­so­ci­ated with IS that were re­port­edly be­ing used to spread ex­trem­ist pro­pa­ganda. Activists say the cur­rent de­bate re­vives the 1990s “crypto war” bat­tle when the gov­ern­ment ought a spe­cial “key” for In­ter­net com­mu­ni­ca­tions, be­fore throw­ing in the towel.

For Good or Evil

En­cryp­tion back­ers say it is like any other tech­nol­ogy - whether it is a car, tele­phone or gun - which can be used for good or evil. “En­cryp­tion is a se­cu­rity tool we rely on ev­ery day 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,” said Dean Garfield of the In­for­ma­tion Tech­nol­ogy In­dus­try Coun­cil, which rep­re­sents ma­jor tech firms. “We deeply ap­pre­ci­ate law en­force­ment’s and the na­tional se­cu­rity com­mu­nity’s work to pro­tect us,” he said. “But weak­en­ing en­cryp­tion or cre­at­ing back doors to en­crypted de­vices and data for use by the good guys would ac­tu­ally cre­ate vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties to be ex­ploited by the bad guys, which would al­most cer­tainly cause se­ri­ous phys­i­cal and fi­nan­cial harm across our so­ci­ety and our econ­omy.” —AFP

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