Technology

Tech Group on Paris Attacks: Weakening Encryption Isn't the Answer

By / Nov 23, 2015 (iStock/Thinkstock)

As officials in Washington, DC, argue that “backdoors” are necessary in encrypted communication apps as a way to prevent terror attacks, a leading technology group says that this strategy could create widespread vulnerabilities for end users who rely on security.

The future of encryption is being debated yet again due to the possibility that those responsible for the deadly Paris terrorist attacks on November 13  may have used encrypted communications.

Encryption is a security tool we rely on every day to stop criminals from draining our bank accounts, to shield our cars and airplanes from being taken over by malicious hacks.

Political leaders are airing their concerns over law enforcement’s inability to access communications that are transmitted via encrypted platforms. But an association is pushing back in hopes that encryption naysayers on Capitol Hill will rethink their position.

Invisible Chats

Currently, some lawmakers believe that the attackers in Paris discussed their plans using encrypted chat, but evidence also suggests they may have used unencrypted means.

Messaging apps such as Telegram and mainstream chat platforms like Apple’s iMessage are known for their high security and tough encryption. The problem with such platforms, from a security standpoint, is that communication on them is difficult to track—something legislators worry makes it much more difficult for law enforcement agencies to monitor terror suspects.

“We need to begin the debate on what we do on encrypted networks, because it makes us blind to the communications and actions of potential adversaries,” Richard Burr (R-NC), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said last week.

Law enforcement cannot access encrypted communications even with a search warrant, and that’s why politicians such as Burr are pushing for backdoors to encrypted technology products that government officials could use to learn about possible terrorist activities in advance. The idea is that access would be dependent on the government’s obtaining a court order.

(A backdoor is a feature built into a software product that allows for governments or companies to access data that would otherwise be encrypted.)

“Encryption is used by terrorists to communicate and we have no insight even with a court order,” Burr said in comments to The Huffington Post.

The Case Against Backdoors

The Information Technology Industry Council (ITI)—a prominent trade group that represents tech leaders such as Apple, Google, and Microsoft—is challenging that notion.

“After a horrific tragedy like the Paris attacks, we naturally search for solutions: weakening encryption is not a solution,” ITI President and CEO Dean Garfield said to Reuters.

Garfield and other privacy advocates have argued that encryption is used every day for a variety of reasons. Consumers, for instance, use encrypted shopping sites when transmitting financial information, while security-focused individuals rely on encrypted messaging. Encryption is also immensely important in a variety of industries, such as banking and healthcare.

“Encryption is a security tool we rely on every day to stop criminals from draining our bank accounts, to shield our cars and airplanes from being taken over by malicious hacks,” Garfield said in a statement last week.

The association believes that weakening encrypted technology—including by providing a key, or backdoor, for law enforcement to gain access to private communications—would harm encrypted systems that are of importance to our society.

Legislators such as Burr, meanwhile, refute such an argument and emphasize that they will continue with their efforts.

“We have a responsibility to keep America safe,” Burr said, according to The Wall Street Journal, adding: “And if it means that people are going to have to change their business models, then so be it.”

Patrick deHahn

Patrick deHahn is a contributor to Associations Now. More »

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