Jeff Sessions, President Trumps new Attorney General for the United States, has recently shown that he supports an encryption backdoor. President Trump seems to support this as well, lambasting Apple when the company wouldn’t unlock an iPhone for the FBI.
What Is An Encryption Backdoor?
A backdoor is any method, usually secret, that bypasses the usual authentication process in a product, computer system, cryptosystem or algorithm. In encryption, a backdoor would mean that agencies like the NSA could design an encryption algorithm in such a way that they could easily decrypt items encrypted with that algorithm. It’s dangerous because backdoors rarely stay secret, and hackers routinely steal secrets.
In his confirmation hearing, Jeff Sessions wrote a response to a question by Sen. Patrick Leahy:
Question: Do you agree with NSA Director Rogers, Secretary of Defense Carter, and other national security experts that strong encryption helps protect this country from cyber attack and is beneficial to the American people’s’ digital security?
Answer: Encryption serves many valuable and important purposes. It is also critical, however, that national security and criminal investigators be able to overcome encryption, under lawful authority, when necessary to the furtherance of national security and criminal investigations. (emphasis added).
Implementing an encryption backdoor would be a huge mistake. Once a backdoor is implemented, it potentially lets everyone else use it too. It’s impossible to make a backdoor that can only be utilized by the “good guys.”
In the 1990s there was a similar debate, dubbed the Crypto Wars. Law enforcement agencies wanted a decryption key built computer hardware, called the Clipper Chip. Although this effort failed, the fight rages on.
Furthermore, an encryption backdoor would cost the American economy billions of dollars. There would be a global loss of consumer confidence in American products and online services. Changing how companies encrypt their systems every time the encryption backdoor is discovered would cost a lot of money. The companies would shift the cost onto consumers.
We can hope that these people do not mean what they say but if the first three weeks of President Trump’s first term in office is anything to go by that would be a dangerous mistake.