Erosion is the slow but inevitable process by which the constant forces of nature wear away a structure of some sort—be it a mountain, a building or an institution. The recent attacks in Paris are just the latest in a series of events that have eroded the framework of law and liberty that were some of the hallmarks of western civilization. But whatever one might think of the societal effects, the technology side is also seeing various ramifications, one of which is the threat to encryption.
Increasingly, politicians and assorted bureaucrats in the U.S. and Europe are calling for backdoors and/or other means of circumventing encryption, all in the name of thwarting the increasingly amorphous phenomenon of terrorism. Ironically, the term terrorist originates from the French Revolution. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a terrorist was originally “an adherent or supporter of the Jacobins, who advocated and practised methods of partisan repression and bloodshed in the propagation of the principles of democracy and equality.” (My, oh my. Are we coming full circle or what?) One immediately wonders how the western crusade to bring democracy and equality to the Middle East is viewed, particularly by relatives of anyone “droned” to death at a wedding party.
Etymology aside—and regardless of how much blame can and should be placed on warmongering policymakers who have been bombing the Middle East almost nonstop for a quarter century—the response of many politicians to a few rather isolated attacks is to tighten its control over everyone. Encryption is a thorn in the statist side because it hides certain information, or at least makes that information more difficult to obtain. FBI Director James Comey has already blustered about how encryption enables crime, supposedly including pedophilia (it’s all for the children, don’t you know?). More recently, ExtremeTech’s John Hruska reported that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., has called for Apple and Google to terminate their enablement of end-to-end encryption. “According to Vance, Apple and Google’s decisions to enable encryption in iOS 8 and Android ‘changed the way those of us in law enforcement work to keep the public safe and bring justice to victims and their families,’” said Hruska.
Another ExtremeTech article by Graham Templeton notes that the U.K. is working on legislation that could force companies to implement backdoors and that would threaten jail time for revealing those orders. Although not necessarily linked directly to encryption, such a law could easily be a stepping stone to further legally mandated exploits up to and including encryption backdoors or revelation of secure keys to government agencies. “The bill, widely referred to as the Snoopers Charter, could also mean that citizens subjected to these secret orders, who decide to defy them, would be tried by secret courts and appeal to secret tribunals with zero public accountability or even disclosure of its decisions,” said Templeton. At such a point, the question becomes who is more terrifying, Islamic militants or the local bureaucrat with the power to “disappear” people for such trivial reasons.
The problem is that events like the Paris attack give security-at-all-costs shriekers a bullhorn to amplify their shouts. And, unfortunately, propagandists regularly couch their totalitarian efforts in the language of liberty. But governments have proven themselves to be irrational in the face of challenges. In Europe, for instance, the inability of zero interest rates to stimulate flagging economies has led some central banks to start paying people to take on debt (i.e., negative interest rates). Naturally, then, the response to a coordinated attack that the nearly all-encompassing surveillance state was unable to prevent is to increase the power of the surveillance state—rather than investigating whether some other policy is causing the problem (such as relentless meddling in the Middle East). This insanity means that no technical or practical argument for the benefits of encryption will be able to stand against the sheer stupidity of politicians. All things being equal at this point, it’s only a matter of time before encryption is hobbled by spy agencies.
That is, assuming it hasn’t already happened.
Absent another Edward Snowden, it might be extremely difficult to determine whether a government has already implemented a means to bypass or otherwise thwart encryption, particularly given the fact that most governments have lost any fear (assuming they ever had it) of whisking certain people away and holding them indefinitely without trial. (And even that assumes the targeted individuals aren’t just assassinated.)
I noted back in 2013 after the Snowden revelations that “yesterday’s outrage is today’s norm.” In fact, many people who were outraged two years ago probably have to stifle yawns when they hear that, for instance, a U.S. senator is working on legislation to extend the NSA’s bulk phone spying program. The difficulty is that politicians have all day long (and they get paid for it) to propose bill after bill that imposes more surveillance, hampers encryption or whatever. Opponents, however, have real jobs to work and bills to pay, leaving precious little time and energy to continuously fight the tide of attacks. The current CISA bill is an example of this strategy—despite previous versions failing in Congress, it has passed the Senate and garnered the approval of President Barack Obama.
Proponents of encryption and software that is secure from government meddling are playing defense. They can offer quite good and (normally) convincing rationales for their position, but they tend to lack a foundation to fight the stronger philosophical currents driving the national-security-at-all-costs mentality. It’s no coincidence, for example, that the origin of the term terrorist is in a movement that pursued equality and democracy by force through the sword of government. Many of the same technology advocates, corporate executives, journalists and others who want to hand the state the power to force people into certain business and other relationships are the same individuals who decry the state for exercising its power in the matter of encryption. But what goes around comes around, as the French revolutionaries discovered. If you unleash the power of the state to accomplish your ends to the detriment of others, be prepared when others do the same thing to your detriment. Unfortunately, technologies like encryption will almost certainly suffer as a result.