The Encryption Backlash

Of course, it’s often argued that all of this activity is simply the NSA (National Security Agency) doing their job: they break codes and have done so for decades, to make sure that criminals, terrorists, and others cannot plot in secret. If this means exploiting weaknesses in software in order to eavesdrop on those who are plotting crime, then so be it.

As GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) told a government enquiry set up after the Snowden revelations: “Our goal is to be able to read or find the communications of intelligence targets.”

From that perspective, they’re doing nothing more than the code-breakers of Bletchley Park did back in WWII — cracking codes in secret to fight the country’s enemies.

But many argue that the analogy doesn’t hold: Bletchley worked on cracking codes used by, and only by, the Nazis. What the NSA and GCHQ have been doing is breaking the codes used by everyone, good and bad, both outside of the US and inside it. By doing so, they risk undermining the security of all communications and transactions.

Those weaknesses and backdoors created or discovered by the NSA and its colleagues elsewhere can be used by hackers and hostile states as easily as they can by our own intelligence agencies. Access for them to spy on the few automatically means insecurity for the rest of us.

As Snowden told the recent CeBIT conference in Germany: “When we talk about security and surveillance, there is no golden key that allows only good guys to read the communications of only terrorists.

Some privacy advocates also argue that no government should ever have such a capability to trawl through the lives of individuals. “It produces an inescapable prison. We can’t let this happen. We have to, as a matter of civic hygiene, prevent it from happening,” Phil Zimmermann, the creator of the PGP encryption algorithm, said recently.

And if the Snowden revelations themselves were an embarrassment for the intelligence agencies, the consequences for their intelligence gathering capabilities have been far worse.

In response the big internet companies such as Yahoo and Google rapidly starting encrypting this traffic to shut out the watchers. As one cryptography expert, Matthew Green from Johns Hopkins University, noted at the time: “Good job NSA. You turned Yahoo into an encryption powerhouse.”

Encrypting data links between datacentres was only the beginning. As the revelations continued to tumble out, more companies decided it was time to increase the privacy of their services, which meant even more encryption.

“If those of us in positions of responsibility fail to do everything in our power to protect the right of privacy we risk something far more valuable than money. We risk our way of life.”

“Encryption has only really become a big issue again because Snowden showed the world how insecure the infrastructure was and how it was being abused by intelligence agencies and so companies started reacting,” said Gus Hosein, the executive director of campaigning group Privacy International.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the decade-long assault on encryption, it seems the fundamentals of it remain strong, so long as it has been well implemented. As Snowden said: “Encryption works. Properly implemented, strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on,” before adding the caveat: “Unfortunately, endpoint security is so terrifically weak that NSA can frequently find ways around it.”

Consumer applications are jumping on the encryption bandwagon. In November 2014, the popular WhatsApp messaging service also switched on end-to-end encryption for hundreds of millions of users who post billions of messages each day.

Using end-to-end encryption like this means law enforcement cannot access the messages sent at all. Previously they have been able to access communications at the datacentre with a warrant, because it would be stored there unencrypted. But end-to end encryption means that from the point it leaves one phone to the point it arrives at the other, the message is scrambled.

Apple’s iOS 8 operating system now encrypts iMessage conversations and FaceTime video chats end-to-end.

“Apple has no way to decrypt iMessage and FaceTime data when it’s in transit between devices. So unlike other companies’ messaging services, Apple doesn’t scan your communications, and we wouldn’t be able to comply with a wiretap order even if we wanted to,” the company says.

Speaking at a cybersecurity summit hosted by the White House at Stanford University, Apple CEO Tim Cook made his position clear, that providing privacy was a moral stance: “History has shown us that sacrificing our right to privacy can have dire consequences. We still live in a world where all people are not treated equally. Too many people do not feel free to practice their religion or express their opinion or love who they choose, a world in which that information can make the difference between life and death.”

“If those of us in positions of responsibility fail to do everything in our power to protect the right of privacy we risk something far more valuable than money. We risk our way of life,” said Cook.

Apple isn’t alone in this. The Electronic Frontier Foundation lists a variety of applications that to a greater or lesser extent now encrypt communications in transit or end-to-end.

The backlash had begun to gather pace.

This unexpected shift towards greater privacy caught the intelligence services and law enforcement off guard. They suddenly found that easy sources of data had gone dark. Senior officials on both sides of the Atlantic began to warn that criminals and terrorists would be able to slip through their fingers. As GCHQ’s new director Robert Hannigan said:

“Techniques for encrypting messages or making them anonymous which were once the preserve of the most sophisticated criminals or nation states now come as standard. These are supplemented by freely available programs and apps adding extra layers of security, many of them proudly advertising that they are ‘Snowden approved’.”

He wasn’t alone in voicing such fears. Late last year, one of his predecessors, Sir David Omand, gave a similar warning to a government privacy and security inquiry.

“Post-Snowden, the companies are now making their devices technically inaccessible even to themselves.”

Another unexpected consequence of the revelations about Western intelligence agencies’ behaviour is that, unsurprisingly, other nations have also demanded access to encryption keys. That’s the problem with putting backdoors into secure systems: once one nation, law enforcement agency, or legal system has them — officially or unofficially — then everybody wants one.

For example, a new anti-terrorism law in China, which could be adopted into law in 2015, would require US technology firms that want to do business in the country to turn over their encryption keys and communications records to the government.

President Obama has complained about the proposed legislation, demonstrating neatly that one country’s dangerous backdoor security vulnerability is another country’s essential tool.

Sabre88 considers encryption as a BOON and not BANE. Lets live a life with security, and the right way to do this is by encrypting every other sensitive data.


Editor’s note:

Steve Ranger. “The undercover war on your internet secrets: How online surveillance cracked our trust in the web– TechRepublic”

TechRepublic. N.p., Web. 02 June. 2016.