U.S. House Judiciary Committee determines encryption backdoors against national interests
In a rebuke to the anti-encryption campaign waged by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation–with Apple as a target–the U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s Encryption Working Group issued a report today stating “any measure that weakens encryption works against the national interest.”
In a bipartisan report, the group observed that “any measure that weakens encryption works against the national interest,” citing representatives of the national security community who noted that “strong encryption is vital to the national defense and to securing vital assets, such as critical infrastructure.”
A second finding of the report was that “encryption technology is a global technology that is widely and increasingly available around the world.” That echoed an earlier study for Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
Conducted by cryptography expert Bruce Schneier and colleagues Kathleen Seidel and Saranya Vijayakumar, that report from February surveyed the availability of encryption products worldwide and compiled findings that made it clear that U.S. laws to weaken domestic encryption wouldn’t stop malicious users from obtaining foreign encryption but would put U.S. firms–such as Apple–at a competitive disadvantage.
The HJC report further suggested that “Congress should foster cooperation between the law enforcement community and technology companies,” the same suggestion Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook made in asking that the elected representatives of the U.S. Congress work on the issue rather than having it be pushed through under court orders facilitated by the state police, invoking fears of terrorism as a emotional ploy.
Good cop? Bad cop.
The prospect of legally requiring backdoors to bypass encryption has simmered in the background ever since digital encryption became affordable and practical for individuals in the 1990s. However, the matter came to a head in February of this year when a federal judge issued an order requiring Apple to work for the FBI in an attempt to bypass iOS security measures to allow access to decrypt data on an iPhone 5c.
Cook resisted the order, standing up not only to the FBI but also to initial media reports that criticized the company for supposedly “failing to help unlock a phone used by a terrorist.”
That message was false; Apple had no ability to “unlock” the encrypted phone, and the federal government’s police lacked the authority to dictate that Apple had to build them a security-compromised version of iOS.
FBI director James Comey pursued a charm campaign using FBI press releases to insist that “the San Bernardino litigation isn’t about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message,” and subsequently repeated those comments in testimony to the U.S. House Intelligence Committee.
However, Comey has a vast public record of desperately seeking to break encryption. In 2015, Comey unsuccessfully lobbied the Obama administration to press for laws empowering the police to force private companies to break their own encryption products.
Just days after claiming to the American people and to Congress that the FBI wasn’t “trying to set a precedent,” Comey let the truth slip in comments before the House Judiciary Committee, admitting that “of course” his agency would seek to use the precedent gained from a win in the San Bernardino to unlock other phones.
Comey has since embroiled himself and his agency in further controversy by creating the appearance of actively seeking to influence the U.S. Presidential election in favor of a candidate that had earlier jumped into the encryption debate unarmed with facts or even a rudimentary understanding of the issues involved, but with a strong “law and order” rhetoric that enflamed support for whatever Comey’s FBI might demand.