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FBI Director Bemoans Unbreakable Encryption

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

December 5, 2017

The US government is a sieve when it comes to keeping things secret. It has leaks galore. Yet its law enforcement arm, the FBI, seems to think that it can be trusted with the “magic keys” of access to encryption. This is very fuzzy logic, especially given its track record of poorly guarding sensitive information.

However, the FBI continues to hammer on this theme of selective encryption. Recently, FBI Director Christopher Wray reminded a law enforcement conference that unbreakable encryption presents, “a huge, huge problem,” which “…impacts investigations across the board – narcotics, human trafficking, counterterrorism, counterintelligence, gangs, organized crime, child exploitation.”

In making his case for breaking encryption, he was preaching to the choir – a conference of liked-minded law enforcement types. He was also re-sounding the clarion calls of his predecessor, James Comey, an ardent critic of encryption that his agency could not access. We all remember the acrimony between the FBI and Apple over the iPhone in the San Bernardino shootings.

For more than two years, Comey decried those who jeopardized safety and security by failing to cave to law enforcement. He made these arguments in multiple appearances before Congress and every time he ventured near an open microphone. He repeatedly warned anyone who would listen that the threat from terrorists demanded a “debate” about limiting commercial encryption – the linchpin of digital security – despite fierce pushback from technical experts.

New Director, Same Policy

His successor, Wray, has picked up the baton, focusing on the perils the public faces. He doesn’t acknowledge the impossibility of selective access to encryption remaining selective – or doesn’t want to. Wray is far from alone on the backdoor bandwagon. Just a couple of weeks earlier, Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein made a similarly ill-informed statement about the need for “responsible encryption,” as if the accommodation could somehow be magically created.

Wray, during the latest address, was likewise clueless when he admitted,

“I get it. There’s a balance that needs to be struck between encryption and the importance of giving us the tools we need to keep the public safe.”

Thanks, but no thanks! Again, Wray fails to recognize that it is encryption that keeps the public safe. Providing the “tools” to law enforcement would be inviting the bad guys through the door – or back door, as it were. Comey said back in 2015 that he was merely giving everyone the lay of the land. “I am not trying to scare folks,” he said, before proceeding to do just that at every opportunity over the next year.

Rising Costs

It is easy to understand why the FBI is frustrated. It’s been to the public trough on the encryption issue since way back in 2009, when it received $9 million for its nascent “Going Dark” program. The FBI has cranked up the rhetoric and raised its game – along with the stakes – because its appropriation for this has soared to $38 million as of this year, with no results to show for it.

The FBI still has to go hat in hand to the tech companies to wheedle some sort of accommodation. The fact is, however, that unless the public is willing to subject itself to bad actors sharing access to their information, there is no alternative to unbreakable encryption.

Opinions are the writer’s own.

Image credit: By Alexander Yakimov/Shutterstock.com
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