Head of FBI launches new attack on encryption

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

July 10, 2015

I really am not a maniac’

 James Comey, Director of the FBI

 When someone in a debate feels they have to insist that they are not a ‘maniac’, things can’t be going well for them. This is, however, precisely what FBI director James Comey wrote shortly before testifying to the Senate’s judiciary and intelligence committees on Wednesday.

 In the same week that an influential group consisting of the world’s most respected cryptographers and computer scientists slammed plans to introduce backdoors into encryption systems, calling them ‘unprincipled and unworkable’, Comey (who prefers the term ‘front doors’), made some of his strongest attacks yet on end-to-end encryption.

 According to Comey (sans any actual evidence), the ability to access decrypted messages is vital to America’s ability to combat threats from ISIS. Comey claims that the FBI has successfully prevented ISIS plots so far, but that,

 ‘There is a device, a devil on their shoulder all day long saying kill kill kill kill. I cannot see me stopping these [plots] indefinitely. I am not trying to scare folks.

 Aside from the fact that he clearly is trying to scare people, this is not a new drum Comey is banging. Despite almost unanimous opposition from technical experts, the technology industry, and civil rights campaigners, Comey is determined to push for government access to encrypted data.

 Although formulated in many different ways, Comey’s basic argument is:

End-to-end encryption is really hard to crack

  • Bad guys use end-to-end encryption
  • This is bad.

 Everyone else’s arguments are that:

  • A backdoor for the government is also a back door to criminals and terrorists. Weakening encryption makes the world less safe for everyone
  • Human beings have a moral right to privacy
  • By mandating backdoors, the United Stes will lose the ‘soft war’, undermining its moral high-ground when criticizing repressive regimes for undermining civil liberties. If it is okay for the US for have backdoor access to encrypted communications, is it also okay for China?
  • Any such move would be disastrous for the US technology industry. After all, why would anyone use products they know are backdoored by the US government?
  • Similarly, any such move could only apply to US products. There would be absolutely nothing, therefore, to prevent the ‘bad guys’ from simply using non-US products. Critically, this means that all the above listed negatives would result from introducing backdoors into encryption, but without a single shred of advantage being gained.
  • Perhaps in an attempt to soften the impact of some of the above crticisms, Comey (with the support of deputy attorney general Sally Yates) told the Senate that he does not want the government itself to hold everyone’s private encryption keys, but that tech companies should simply cooperate in handing over this information when requested.

Perhaps also trying to address the negative reaction that talk of backdoors (or ‘front doors’) has provoked, Yates was keen to downplay the notion of ‘doors’,

 ‘The approach of the administration is not to have a legislative solution at this point to cram down the throats of the technology industry. We’re not seeking a front door, a back door, or any other kind of door. We’re seeking to work with industry such that they will be able to respond to [warrants] … we want an individual solution with each individual company.

 On what these’ solutions’ may be, Comey and Yates remained very fuzzy, but it doesn’t really matter much, as the result would be exactly the same as a ‘backdoor.’ This is clearly just a cynical attempt to rebrand a conversation that is not going well for Comey.

 Perhaps it is time for Comey and his supporters to come to terms with the fact that ever since mankind first thought to knock two rocks together, all technological progress has been something of a two-edged sword.  Almost anything than can be used by the majority for the greater good, can also be subverted to less desirable ends. Should be ban all hammers because hammers are sometimes used as murder weapons?

 Even Comey started off his speech to the Senate with the statement that ‘encryption is a great thing,’ before spending the rest of his time discussing ways to destroy it.’ Yes, ‘bad guys’ use encryption, but it also provides security and privacy for the vast majority of law abiding people in the world. Deal with it.

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