The Feds Take Another Run At Getting Rid of Encryption


This is not really an opinion piece, but some people might think it is, so I will go for over disclosure and call it that.

The Feds really don’t like encryption.  It gets in their way when they want to do mass surveillance or even targeted surveillance.

For hundreds of years the Feds could listen in to any conversation that they wanted to, whether it was planting someone in the local pub to overhear your conversation, tapping your phone or more recently reading your email.

In concept, when done appropriately, this is a necessary evil.  I would not say it is a good thing, but there are bad people out there and you have to keep them in check.

In the 1990s a guy named Phil Zimmerman invented a piece of software called PGP.  It was free and it brought encryption to a lot more people than had it before.  It was far from easy to use, so most people didn’t use it, but still the government didn’t like it.  For five years the government tried to get Zimmerman locked up for inventing it (technically, they said that encryption was governed by the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR) and so you could not export it and since it was available on the Internet, he was exporting it).  The public never bought the argument and finally, in 1996, the government gave up.

Once the government realized that they could not put Phil’s genie back in the bottle, they came up with another idea called the Clipper chip.  The Clipper chip had a built in backdoor so the feds could decrypt anything that was encrypted using it.  People realized that encryption done that way wasn’t really private and never signed on to buying clipper chips.

In the mid 1990s the Feds noticed that phone companies were implementing digital central office phone switches and they could come into a phone company office and put a couple of alligator clips on your home phone line to listen to the mob, so Congress passed CALEA in 1994.  CALEA gave the phone companies billions of dollars (literally) to install digital back doors in their central offices.

Things got sort of quiet after that  with the FBI complaining to anyone who would listen, but Congress never listened for some reason.

Part of the logic might have been if encryption is so bad, crime must be going crazy, but that wasn’t true.  For the most part, in general, crime was level or maybe even going down a little – of course there were exceptions, but nothing massive to indicate that crooks were really smart and hiding all of their actions.

Over the last ten years or so, the FBI and various Justice Department folks said that we needed to put a back door in encryption to find terrorists.  For whatever reason, people still didn’t believe them and Congress has been unwilling to mandate an encryption backdoor.

All during this time, encryption was becoming more and more ubiquitous, including encrypted phones, both Apple and Google.  They said that the world was going dark because of all of this encryption, yet they continue to find and arrest cyber criminals and terrorists.  Maybe not all of them, but a lot of them.

But the Feds are not giving up.  They want Facebook, Google, Apple and others to build in back doors to their messaging applications.

The reason they now want to add encryption back doors?  Its the children.  Poor. Defenseless.  Children.  After all the child molesters and kiddie porn freaks – surely they must be using encryption.  I guess they are.  I mean, what if they catch a kiddie porn pervert and his phone is encrypted.  Surely he will get off Scot free.

Well it turns out that even that isn’t quite true.  The New York City District Attorney signed a deal about two years ago with the Israeli company Cellebrite.  Cellebrite claims to be able to get the data off almost any phone, Android or iPhone.  Probably pretty accurate.  Now it has come out that New York is offering this phone-hacking-as-a-service to other law enforcement agencies as well.  But this is not as easy as vacuuming up all of the data from everyone and looking for anything that seems interesting.

Still the government does have tools.  Raytheon makes a box called a Stingray.  Originally it was designed for the Military to use in the Middle East and other hot spots to watch terrorists, but money wins out and Raytheon will sell it to law enforcement everywhere.  Recently, we have been watching a spy vs. spy game as it has come out that people have found numerous Stingray or Stingray-like devices all over DC, including around the White House.

That is the problem with stuff.  You can’t keep the genie in the bottle.  If we create an encryption back door and say that only the cops can use it, that will last for at least a few months before the secret is no  longer secret.

If you think we have all of this cyber crime now, with all of this encryption, you can’t imagine what it might be like if we don’t have secure encryption.  And this is definitely a genie that you will not be able to get back in the bottle.

Just my opinion.




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