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Why The U.S. Government And Big Tech Disagree On Encryption


I'm here on 14th Street in New York City, where hundreds of people are messaging friends and family with their phones But while they're texting the FBI, advocacy groups and government agencies are all battling over who can read those text messages

Most messages like those sent from WhatsApp, which was the most popular messaging app in 2019 or Apple's imessage are encrypted That means that they are kept private from everyone except the intended recipient And while these platforms aren't perfect, Jeff Bezos' phone was recently accessed through a malicious video message via WhatsApp Many people rely on the privacy that encryption provides daily Encryption is basically how you lock your door online

Some law enforcement agencies and dignitaries like Attorney General William Barr would argue that the protection provided by encryption also protects criminals and terrorists There are situations where we would want the government, for example, to be able to get access to certain information The president believes tech companies like Apple should be building encryption with so-called backdoors I don't care, we have to get it We have to find out what's going on

The benefits of encryption as a tool are practically countless And few would argue that on either side, the issue is who should be able to use that encryption and for what On the one hand, you have law enforcement and government agencies who are arguing that they need access to information in order to be able to prosecute criminals versus those that are arguing that we need encryption to protect the functioning of our democracy And many human rights activists, privacy experts and members of the tech community believe it is essential to online and physical safety If we don't have encryption

If we don't have that level of anonymity Then we we simply can't exist online And sometimes that might mean non existent life Encryption saves lives It saves lives

You might be surprised how many services use encryption to keep data private Banks use encryption for mobile payments and deposits imessage and signal use end to end encryption to secure message data And encryption is also used to protect sensitive data like health data Your web browser has strong encryption in it

Like whenever you buy something online, there's really strong encryption happening in the background of it to protect your credit card and your your your transaction To put it very simply, when information is sent from user A to user B The information is converted into a jumble of nonsense That nonsense is encrypted and decrypted according to a key User B uses that key to decrypt the information and this is all done digitally

Encryption is the science of secret codes, but it is essentially just math It's applied math It's not fancy in terms of technological things It's it's fancy math It's important to stress that encryption is a tool

It scrambles data to an unrecognizable state even for the government The argumentment for most is what data should be scrambled? Bank data, government communications These things are often regarded as data that should be scrambled and therefore secured Do we really need there to be lawful access into the command and control channels that are used for operational technology, say, to run a dam or an electric power plant? There's no reason you would ever need, quote unquote, lawful access to that system Personal communications like messages sent with WhatsApp are some of that scramble data that's facing scrutiny

On the other hand, there are other channels that you can imagine where there might be a more valid tradeoff between what the protection that encryption provides and the needs of law enforcement to do investigations But who is to say who can scramble what data? I don't think it's appropriate for the government to decide that they get security and we don't And curiously, you know, I mean, if if law enforcement actually went around your neighborhood and said, look, you know, there's burglars on the loose so we want you to leave your front door open So in case you're a burglar, we can come find you without having to break down your door Most people would say, that's crazy

Go back and learn your job You're supposed to be protecting me And the line between digital and physical safety can be a thin one For example, the E F F has worked with victims of domestic violence to help them stay safe and secure Being able to have communications over WhatsApp, whether you're trying to find your way to a shelter, find a shelter, arrange for whatever is going to happen when somebody's gonna come get you or you're gonna get yourself out making sure that you can cover your tracks about who helped you, where you went and where you got help can be the difference between life or death for people who are escaping domestic violence situations

Encryption is also protecting human rights activists and folks who are living in countries with dictators and persecutory policies Esra built a social platform called Ahwaa, where individuals who identify as LGBTQ plus can virtually meet and talk with each other in Middle Eastern and North African countries such as Egypt, where homosexuality is not expressly illegal, but where the government has used laws against what they call debauchery, among others, to criminalize LGBTQ plus individuals Encryption is very important us I mean, we are operating in such a sensitive part of the world where censorship and surveillance are the norm, where individuals are tracked not just because of what they believe, but simply because of who they are Their very identity, their very existence is in fact a crime

Because Ahwaa is public, yet anonymized and encrypted People are able to share experiences, share resources and share life-saving advice If somebody, for example, says, I'm a lesbian in Saudi Arabia, I have suicidal thoughts because I can't reconcile my identity with my faith You know, and then people can come who can relate to that topic without needing to sign in and see what other people are writing in terms of support, in terms of resources Where can I go to get any types of counseling, mental health, i f you're a trans individuals, where can I go to get some hormonal therapy without risking my life? You know, this is what Ahwaa really stands for is accessibility with the responsibility for security

On the other side of the issue s ome argue that encryption actually masks threats to national security and the security of civilians Not all access all of the time is bad And maybe we want to take some of the risks that are associated with having lawful access Understanding that they pose risks And we still want to do that anyway

On December 2nd, 2015, Syeed Farook and Tashfeen Malik opened fire in the city of San Bernardino, California, leaving 14 people and the two shooters dead During the investigation, the FBI obtained Farouk's iPhone, but could not access it through the passcode They went to Apple to unlock it and Apple couldn't help I think it's frankly disgraceful I think it's a disgrace what they're doing

And I think that ultimately Apple will have the blood of dead Americans on their hands for these kinds of decisions Apple's encryption was so good, according to Apple, that Apple itself couldn't access the encrypted data on the phone Beyond that, the assistance ordered by a federal judge would overhaul the system that disables the phone after 10 unsuccessful password attempts Tim Cook called the order chilling We did not expect to be in this position at odds with our own government, but we believe strongly that we have a responsibility to help you protect your data and protect your privacy

We have a tremendous problem with data breaches and lack of security in the digital world, and encryption is one of the very few tools we have that can help protect us And so it's tremendously important that we stand up for it Putting what was being called a backdoor in the IOS framework would allow the FBI to access the contents of iPhones everywhere, as is legally its right with a warrant, but would also leave the operating system much more vulnerable to hackers and other governments It does come across often as the as the government side sort of more or less demanding a unicorn, right? We just want the tech sector to provide access to their products, but only for us and only under the conditions that we say And of course, the tech sector says, well, that's not possible cause math

The FBI took Apple to court about the issue, but found another way into the iPhone without Apple's help Yet we're being asked to create a method to hack our own phones The case was dropped, but the debate still continues Encryption is good The right way is to leave Apple alone

The government's being lazy investigations to hard, so we're just going to sacrifice your civil liberties The price we pay for this privacy is that privacy covers criminals and the crimes they commit Drugs and gun sales, human trafficking These are all done in the very dark secret and private corners of the internet Where are we willing to risk not getting information for investigations? Where are we willing to risk potentially having the bad guys gain access to a channel because of you know weakened encryption? All of our rights have tradeoffs and we as a society have to decide if we want to make that tradeoff

But I think we should recognize the downsides to the rest of us of taking away our security and balance that against making it maybe slightly harder and maybe a few cases for the FBI to to catch somebody who's done something wrong Facebook is now in the political spotlight, having declared its dedication to end to end encryption for messaging apps, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger In an open letter to Facebook US

Attorney General William Barr, along with dignitaries from the UK and Australia, warned that, quote, "Security enhancements to the virtual world should not make us more vulnerable in the physical world" And that, quote, "children's safety and law enforcement's ability to bring criminals to justice must not be the ultimate cost of Facebook taking forward these proposals" He wants government bodies to have legal access to data that could be involved in a crime Important people get security, but little ordinary people don't get security These are challenges that people like him can't even fathom, you know, because you've never been in a situation where your very identities criminalized

Over 100 organizations signed a letter urging Facebook to continue its pursuit of end to end encryption against the wishes spelled out in the letter from the US, UK and Australian governments These organizations included the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and the Electronic Frontier Foundation We felt it was important for Facebook to stand its ground and to understand that, you know, that people like us who work on behalf of users, you know, if if Facebook stands with their users on this, we'll stand with them The leaders of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger responded to the attorney general, William Barr, in another open letter saying, quote, "The backdoor access you are demanding for law enforcement would be a gift to criminals, hackers and repressive regimes, creating a way for them to enter our systems and leaving every person on our platform more vulnerable to real life harm" I believe Facebook is absolutely correct to resist this

I do not think we want to be creating vulnerabilities because they're going to get exploited I've heard from people, friends and family, who say, why should I be worried that the government has my data? I'm not doing anything wrong or jokes that the government would be bored with my data But Esra says that she might have to shut down Ahwaa if encryption were forcibly weakened I think the risk would multiply so much that we would just completely feel paralyzed That we will no longer be able to grow, maintain and sustain all of these initiatives

And the Internet as a whole would lose so many voices, so many communities, so many narratives, so many perspectives that we really need in order to grow and expand and decentralize, generally decentralized the Internet so that it's more representative of marginalized voices that have been silenced for too long There's also the concern that taking encryption away from some people won't stop the criminals who will find other ways to communicate privately If we set up lawful access to certain channels, the media of the adversaries will simply move to channels where that law enforcement access does not exist When you think about the real bad guys of the world that we're talking about ISIS or or terrorist groups, they're gonna have access to strong encryption And an American policy calling for backdoors in encryption would create an international precedence

If Apple creates this backdoor then China's gonna say, oh, well, that's nice Iran's going to say that's a beautiful backdoor Turkey same thing right From 2014 w hen Apple started encrypting users iPhone content to 2016, Manhattan's, then district attorney said he was in possession of one hundred and seventy five iPhones that could have provided evidence in legal cases Encryption has the potential, as we've seen, to thwart the efforts of law enforcement to catch criminals and prevent crimes The Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination

The Fourth Amendment right to be free of search and seizures These are all rights that give us protection against law enforcement that has downsides That means that sometimes bad guys might go free But we know that in order to keep the rest of us free, we need to have this balance in the role of law enforcement Amnesty International says there is no middle ground

If law enforcement is allowed to circumvent encryption, then anybody can They feel that either everyone is protected from community activists to terrorists, from regular people to governments, or no one is protected This is an incredibly complex area that we will have to grapple with as a society, and I would much rather us grapple with it proactively and arrive at some policy decisions than make you know bad decisions in the wake of a disaster One way or the other A lot of people sometimes think, oh no, this issue is exaggerated

And the bigger concern is what if militants are using encryption That's why we should ban it, because in order to protect millions of people, we need to risk the lives of a hundred thousand people Well, that's not true I think that argument is incredibly weak I think there's a lot that we can do to balance the two

You may not know it, but you rely on encryption every day already And this isn't the government trying to prevent you from getting something This is the government trying to take away something you already have

Source: Youtube

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