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Are Encryption Backdoors Needed to Fight Terrorism?

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on November 30, 2015 11:59 AM

Following the recent terrorist attacks on Paris, many government officials have renewed their calls for backdoor access to encrypted communications. Terrorists, we're told, are "going dark," using simple encryption technology to conceal their communications. Government and law enforcement, we're told, need code-breaking, backdoor access to help fight off threats.

But is it actually necessary?

The Case for a Government Backdoor

Encrypting your communications is easier than ever now. (There's no need to learn Cherokee or Choctaw to keep your codes coded anymore.) Apps like Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Apple Messages automatically encrypt messages. Programs with "sealed envelope" encryption keep message contents hidden not only from law enforcement but from the service providers, too. They're pretty much unbreakable, even if you have a court order. Teenage sexters and terrorists both have made use of the new technology. ISIS, in particular, is known to use Telegram, an encrypted messaging app that lets it broadcast messages to up to 200 recipients.

But it might be too easy to hide messages, these days. The proliferation of encryption has lead FBI director James Comey to repeatedly call for backdoor government access. Last March, he called unbreakable encryption "an affront to the rule of law." He renewed those claims after the Paris attacks, saying that the FBI was unable to execute 111 search warrants for smartphones over the past year because of encryption, making such orders ineffective without a government backdoor built in.

And the Case Against

Privacy advocates aren't exactly ready to hand over the keys to all encryption to the federal government, however. As Nathan Freitas, a privacy expert with the Berkman Center, recently pointed out, there are plenty of ways the government can access data without an encryption backdoor. For one, mobile phone use, even with its encryption apps, creates a record of nearly every movement. "Accessing that data often does not require a warrant," Freitas write, "just a phone number and a contact at the phone company." Full disk encryption is not the default for most devices and there are plenty of ways to get around encryption apps.

The technology community has been especially skeptical of government calls for encryption backdoors -- a "deep cynicism," as Comey describes it. Apple CEO Tim Cook has stated that there's no way to give the government special access without making devices vulnerable to others. An industry group, the Information Technology Industry Council, reiterated those concerns recently, stating that "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."

For the time being, it seems like encryption advocates will get what they want. The Obama administration backed away from legislation mandating backdoors in October. Aside from Comey, few government officials seem ready to refight that battle, despite the Paris attacks.

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