Black Friday

The Argument for Weaker Encryption is Just a Dodge

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

December 8, 2015


A recent article in The Daily Beast on the subject of encryption and building backdoors is timely and prescient, though it misses the political diversion angle of the encryption wars. But the author correctly acknowledges that Paris (San Bernardino, CA massacre occurred after publication) is being used by politicians to gain the upper-hand in the encryption/backdoors debate.

Their attempt to hijack the incident ignores the fact that the brainchild behind the Paris attacks was known to both American and French authorities before executing an attack that killed 130 people. Though it hasn’t been proved that encryption was employed, officials are quick to embrace this as the reason, instead of their incompetence in divining the planning and execution of the attack, or explaining how it is that terrorists, traveling across countries’ borders, could evade detection.

Here’s what I think is really going on in the debate about backdoors and encryption. I think this is just another attempt by government to scapegoat an issue, to divert attention from their failure to intelligently and effectively use the massive amount of information they have collected. So, they are willing to throw caution to the wind by clamoring for breakable encryption, which while making things easier for law enforcement, would certainly allow the bad guys (terrorists and cyber criminals) to have a field day. The result could be cataclysmic for the economies of the world, which rely on cyber security. This scapegoating and diversionary exercise is nothing new, and is being used on a variety of contemporary problems.

Government leaders and politicians, for example, have for decades kicked the climate change can down the road, to the point where it is today – political cover for politicians wanting to escape scrutiny for their many policy failures – terrorism being one. As a science teacher in the early ’70s, many of my lessons were devoted to the fragility of the environment. More than 40 years on, the problem has unsurprisingly gotten worse, as politicians and governments have given it short shrift over the years. These situations, which cry for long-term planning and solutions, don’t fit into the politicians short-term visions and election cycles.

But the issue of climate change, though topical for 40 years (by the way, the planet has been slowly warming for centuries,) has now been elevated to celebrity status, and is a convenient diversion from clear and present dangers. Ploiticians hope voters will forget their ineptitude and dithering in creating the very conditions that allowed terrorism to percolate unfettered. President Obama’s laissez-faire policy in the Middle East comes to mind, and is no better than his predecessors’ over-aggressiveness in the region.

Each of these men, and many before them, are praying on people’s fears rather than tackling more potentially dangerous problems. In the US, a problem that is a contributor to inadequate healthcare and uneven coverage is the suffocating national debt (now nearly $20 trillion), which has ballooned over a 50 year period, but which has been shunned eagerly and deliberately by politicians to focus on the issue du jour, on which elections are based.

So, instead of eradicating the debt and its onerous carrying costs, which, by the way, would pay the tab for universal healthcare, not to mention many other social programs, while also allowing for a vigorous prosecution of the war on terror, the debate is buried, and the importance minimized or ignored. No politician wants to address it because it isn’t ’’sexy”, and doesn’t poll well.

It’s almost as if politicians secretly yearn for terrorist attacks (not necessarily the loss of life,) while publicly professing their outrage because it allows them to advance their agendas – anti-gun or anti-encryption, it doesn’t matter. One can’t help but notice that President Hollande’s popularity has soared to heights that heretofore would have been unimaginable – he was politically vulnerable.

The ”war on terror” is an example that permits politicians to wring their hands and excoriate terrorists, while simultaneously trying to co-opt terrorist incidents for their political purposes and gain political cover – party affiliation and philosophy notwithstanding. Those on the left use it to argue for stricter gun control laws, while those on the right maintain that more, not fewer, guns in the hands of citizens would limit the carnage. And both would gladly sacrifice privacy on the altar of backdoor, breakable encryption, if they perceived an election edge.

Thus, true to form, in recent days, US officials have been taking the pulse of some technology companies, in order to gauge their willingness to sit down for meetings aimed at coming up with new encryption policies, two individuals familiar with those discussions told The Daily Beast. This renewed effort for easier encryption is just another political ploy to divert attention away from law enforcement’s shortcomings. Fortunately, the tech companies, taking the long view about the bigger dangers of weaker encryption, aren’t caving-in to the pressures being exerted by the government. In the opinion of tech executives, it is better for law enforcement to play catch-up, which it does well and quickly, than give terrorists and criminals an equal advantage. According to Bob Stasio, formerly of the National Security Agency and a military cyber office, and now a fellow with the Truman National Security Project,

People will continue to create ‘unbreakable encryption,’and others will continue to find a way around it, including the intelligence community, of course, I am a full believer in ‘if man can make it, man can break it,’ so I think saying we should limit encryption technology to prevent malicious use is not only a waste of time, but weakens legitimate cyber security as a whole.

After a recent speech by James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, excoriating the tech companies for their lack of enthusiasm and compliance in capitulating on the encryption issue, a spokesperson for the tech industry responded

“Weakening encryption or creating backdoors 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. Weakening security with the aim of advancing security simply does not make sense.”

It certainly doesn’t make sense, unless you want to take advantage of the misery of a terrorist attack and use it for political gain, and to mask previous policy failures. Any way you slice it, the encryption issue is not going away anytime soon. It will be resurrected whenever there is a suspected terrorist attack – which is all too often these days…

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