A group of computer security experts have come out in opposition to demands by the US and the UK governments to be granted special access to encrypted communications. The move, the experts argue, would put the most confidential data and infrastructure at risk.
The 14 elite cryptographers and computer scientists from around the globe have a formidable influence in the ensuing debate between the law enforcers pushing for less Internet anonymity and advocates of online privacy. Encryption has come to the fore following Edward J. Snowden’s disclosures that government spying was at a record high. The fact that data is being put online at previously unseen speeds has helped to fan the already heated debate on Internet anonymity.
Naturally, technology companies have been dragged into this face off. Companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google have increased their efforts to encrypt corporate and customer data since becoming aware that the NSA and other government agencies have been hacking into information centers and intercepting digital communications.
Commercial encryption efforts, law enforcers argue, sabotage their attempts to monitor crime. The UK prime minister even threatened to ban the use of encrypted messages completely. The NSA director, Michael S. Rogers, has suggested that technology companies develop digital keys that can be used to circumvent Internet anonymity and offer access to encrypted data. However, such a key would be shared among different people so that no one person could have full access to the information.
The debate on Internet anonymity is still a long way from an amicable resolution. The timing of the report by the elite group of experts was, for instance, quite opportunistic. The report was released just a day before FBI director James B. Comey Jr., and deputy attorney general at the Justice Department, Sally Quillian Yates were to testify at the Senate Judiciary Committee against the use of encryption technologies that provide the ironclad Internet anonymity that prevents the government from doing its job efficiently.
The report by the technologists is the first of its kind. In the report, the experts claim that by granting the government access to encrypted information, important infrastructure such as the banking system and the power grid would be seriously compromised. Some of the big names behind the report include Whitfield Diffie, considered a pioneering influence in public key cryptography, and Ronald L. Rivest, one of the forces behind the RSA public cryptography algorithm.
The level of trust the government would need to be granted what they need would be unimaginable. This would be especially difficult since the government has been experiencing widespread breaches that would result in the keys falling into the wrong hands. Moreover, the demands would have a ripple effect as other countries such as China would feel obliged to enforce similar measures, and this would put the very people the “back doors” are supposed to protect at risk. The adverse economic impact of compromised Internet anonymity would also be substantial, not to mention an affront to the moral authority developed countries currently wield in the rest of the world.
The government’s stand is that end-to-end encryption makes it harder for them to do their job by forcing them to pursue targets rather than the companies supplying the technology. However, those in support of the report released by the experts believe that this report conclusively explains why the government’s proposal is not at all workable.