• Tag Archives encryption
  • Fancy New Terms, Same Old Backdoors: The Encryption Debate in 2019


    Almost every week, we hear about another corporate data breach or government attack on privacy. For anyone who wants real privacy online, encryption is the essential component.

    Governments around the world keep trying to break encryption, seeking to enhance the power of their law enforcement agencies. They’ve tried for years to require companies to build backdoors into encrypted software and devices, which would enable them to listen in on potentially any digital conversation. The FBI has coined a phrase, “going dark,” that it has used since the late ’90s to describe their “problem”—the lack of an omnipresent, all-powerful surveillance tool.

    But encryption with special access for a select group isn’t some kind of superpower—it’s just broken encryption. The same security flaws used by U.S. police will be used by oppressive regimes and criminal syndicates.

    The only innovation in 2019 has been rhetorical—anti-encryption authorities are determined not to call a backdoor a backdoor. Instead, we saw a proposal from UK intelligence agency GCHQ to add “ghost” listeners to encrypted messaging applications. Later in the year, we saw a revival of the idea of “key escrow,” a discredited idea about how to square the circle on encryption.

    Other approaches included ideas like “client-side scanning,” which is also sometimes called “endpoint filtering” or “local processing.” This array of terms describes a system where a messaging application maintains end-to-end encryption, but when users upload images or other content, it can be first checked locally against a set of “hashes” or fingerprints for contraband. These strategies have been proposed as solutions to the problem of child exploitation images, a problem that the DOJ highlighted frequently in the latter half of 2019, trying to reframe the use of encryption as enabling criminal behavior.

    The promise of end-to-end encryption is, ultimately, a simple value proposition: it’s the idea that no one but you and your intended recipients can read your messages. There’s no amount of wordsmithing that can get around that. It’s high time to start convening conferences and panels of experts to research and publish ideas about how effective law enforcement can co-exist with tools for privacy and strong encryption, rather than trying to break them.

    Keeping Promises on Encryption

    Government pressure hasn’t caused tech companies to abandon encryption, at least not yet. In March, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg publicly embraced end-to-end encryption for all of Facebook’s messaging products. That sounds great, in theory, but the proof is in the pudding—we still don’t know how Facebook might seek to monetize an end-to-end encrypted service. There are also policy and competition concerns about the company’s intention to merge WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook Messenger.

    But those policy concerns might be rendered moot if the company backpedals under the glare of increasing government demands. In October, top law enforcement officials in the U.S., U.K., and Australia called on Zuckerberg to simply stop his plan to encrypt the merged messenger products. Again waving the flag of child safety, law enforcement agencies in these three countries made clear their ultimate goal: access to every conversation, on every digital device. Civil society hasn’t been silent. We joined together with more than 100 other NGOs to write our own letter urging Facebook to proceed with its plans. In December, Facebook itself signaled it won’t bow to that pressure.

    The stakes couldn’t be higher. Whichever way the social media giant moves on encryption, other companies are sure to follow.

    Source: Fancy New Terms, Same Old Backdoors: The Encryption Debate in 2019 | Electronic Frontier Foundation


  • Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein’s “Responsible Encryption” Demand is Bad and He Should Feel Bad

    Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein delivered a speech on Tuesday about what he calls “responsible encryption” today. It misses the mark, by far.

    Rosenstein starts with a fallacy, attempting to convince you that encryption is unprecedented:

    Our society has never had a system where evidence of criminal wrongdoing was totally impervious to detection, especially when officers obtain a court-authorized warrant. But that is the world that technology companies are creating.

    In fact, we’ve always had (and will always have) a perfectly reliable system whereby criminals can hide their communications with strong security: in-person conversations. Moreover, Rosenstein’s history lesson forgets that, for about 70 years, there was an unpickable lock. In the 1770s, engineer Joseph Bramah created a lock that remained unpickable until 1851. Installed in a safe, the owner could ensure that no one could get inside, or at least not without destroying the contents in the process.

    Billions of instant messages are sent and received each day using mainstream apps employing default end-to-end encryption. The app creators do something that the law does not allow telephone carriers to do: they exempt themselves from complying with court orders.

    Here, Rosenstein ignores the fact that Congress exempted those app creators-“electronic messaging services”- from the Computer Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). Moreover, CALEA does not require telephone carriers to decrypt encryption where users hold the keys. Instead, Section 1002(b)(3) of CALEA provides:

    (3) Encryption. A telecommunications carrier shall not be responsible for decrypting, or ensuring the government’s ability to decrypt, any communication encrypted by a subscriber or customer, unless the encryption was provided by the carrier and the carrier possesses the information necessary to decrypt the communication.

    By definition, when the customer sends end-to-end encrypted messages—in any kind of reasonably secure implementation—the carrier does not (and should not) possess the information necessary to decrypt them.

    With his faulty premises in place, Rosenstein makes his pitch, coining yet another glib phrase to describe a backdoor.

    Responsible encryption is achievable. Responsible encryption can involve effective, secure encryption that allows access only with judicial authorization. Such encryption already exists. Examples include the central management of security keys and operating system updates; the scanning of content, like your e-mails, for advertising purposes; the simulcast of messages to multiple destinations at once; and key recovery when a user forgets the password to decrypt a laptop.

    As an initial matter, “the scanning of content, like your e-mails, for advertising purposes” is not an example of encryption, “responsible” or otherwise. Rosenstein’s other examples are just describing systems where the government or another third party holds the keys. This is known as “key escrow,” and, as well explained in the Keys Under Doormats paper, the security and policy problems with key escrow are not only unsolved, but unsolvable.

    Perhaps sensitive to the criticisms of the government’s relentless attempts to rename backdoors, Rosenstein claims “No one calls any of those functions a “back door.” In fact, those capabilities are marketed and sought out by many users.” In fact, critics of backdoors have fairly consistently called key escrow solutions “backdoors.” And any reasonable reader would call Google’s ability to access your email a backdoor, especially when