Encryption is the process used to encode data to prevent unwanted third parties from accessing a user’s personal files. There are many different algorithms for encryption but they all essentially serve to safeguard one’s personal information and privacy.Smartphones and computers utilize encryption to permanently lock your data in the case of theft or if an unauthorized individual attempts to access your device. However, encryption algorithms are also used by hackers to develop computer viruses known as ransomware, like the infamous Ryuk ransomware, that has been used to encrypt the files of hundreds of businesses in the U.S. and around the world.
Why does the government want access to encrypted products?Terrorist organizations use apps like Telegram, which features end to end encryption, to communicate between each other and disseminate their radical propaganda as they radicalize and recruit new members. Terrorists are not the only ones who use this application for nefarious deeds. Hackers, drug dealers, and all sorts of criminals use it to communicate and safeguard their information.
At this point, one might wonder why the government, which has multiple departments dedicated to cyberintelligence, is pushing tech companies to give them easier access to encrypted devices? The reason may be that the degree of difficulty involved with cracking through an encrypted device is too high for government agencies to do consistently.
The 2015 San Bernardino Terrorist Attack in California is a perfect example of how difficult it is, even for the government, to access an encrypted device. The mass shooting, carried out by radicalized Islamist Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik, claimed the lives 14 people and injured 22. During the investigations, the FBI managed to recover Farook’s work phone, an iPhone5C, but were unable to unlock the phones due to its security features and encryption. The FBI requested help from iPhone’s manufacturer, Apple, to create software that would allow them to access Farook’s iPhone. Apple refused, despite receiving multiple court orders to do so. It was only with the help of an undisclosed third party that the FBI managed to access Farook’s phone, and even then, the information retrieved was very limited. Apple’s refusal to cooperate brought to light the important question of exactly where should the line be drawn between consumer privacy and national security.
National Security vs Consumer Privacy When Edward Snowden leaked classified documents regarding the U.S. government’s surveillance programs, American citizens became aware of how intelligence agencies such as the NSA are tracking and monitoring them. When compared to the extensive tools in the NSA’s arsenal, a backdoor to encrypted devices might seem like a small concession. The truth is, that concession may carry greater consequences in the near future. For starters, this would mean that law-abiding Americans will lose another level of privacy.
Another issue, and probably the most important one, is the legal precedent that may be set. If the government deems that it should have access to private communication for the sake of national security, it is likely that the same line of thought will then be applied to all tech products. It can use this same rationale to justify legislation allowing for the audit of files on your home computer, tablet, and encrypted conversations at any moment, and for any reason.
So, on one end, we have the private citizen who desires to maintain their right to privacy. On the other end, we have a government that is looking for more unfettered access to our devices in the name of national security.
ConclusionOur legal system is based on the premise that an individual is innocent until proven guilty. Adding backdoor encryption to services not only violates privacy, but the constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure outlined by the 4th Amendment. Furthermore, if pushing for legislation that compromises our privacy becomes a trend, we will lose one of the key principles that makes America great. In the worst-case scenario, the United States may one day end up like China.
Which is why when Politico reported that "senior Trump administration officials met on Wednesday [June 26] to discuss whether to seek legislation prohibiting tech companies from using forms of encryption that law enforcement can’t break," it was of real significance, "a provocative step that would reopen a long-running feud between federal authorities and Silicon Valley.".