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IEEE on Strong Encryption, Back Doors, and Exceptional Access Mechanisms

July 3, 2018 by Jason Lackey
Strong Encryption

On June 24, 2018 IEEE issued a position statement in support of strong encryption where they came out in favor of strong encryption and opposed the use of exceptional access mechanisms, or back doors. While it has been widely understood that there are significant security challenges to any sort of back doored encryption, IEEE broke down their stance into the following pillars:

  1. We need strong encryption for a variety of reasons including ecommerce.
  2. Back doors weaken any encryption.
  3. If good guys use back doored encryption, this does not imply that the bad guys will
  4. If back doored encryption were to become widely deployed, it is likely that some people/countries would do things that we would not agree with.
  5. Law enforcement can get needed data in many ways other than encryption back doors.
  6. Mandated back doors could undermine open/fair markets.

Pretty hard to argue against these points, huh?

We need strong encryption for a variety of reasons including ecommerce.

This actually goes beyond things like using credit cards or online shopping.

Indeed, Bruce Schneier writes:

Encryption protects the identity of dissidents all over the world. It's a vital tool to allow journalists to communicate securely with their sources, NGOs to protect their work in repressive countries, and lawyers to communicate privately with their clients. It protects our vital infrastructure: our communications network, the power grid and everything else. And as we move to the Internet of Things with its cars and thermostats and medical devices, all of which can destroy life and property if hacked and misused, encryption will become even more critical to our security.

We have already seen (some say as early as 1982 with a titanic natural gas explosion in a Siberian pipeline) that compromised computer systems can have massive, and deadly, effects on meatspace. Stuxnet hammered the point home in 2009 by taking out roughly 1/5 of Iran’s uranium centrifuges (vital for enriching uranium for nuclear weapons) with a hack that crossed the line from making bad things happen to ones and zeros to making bad things happen in the real world.

Back doors weaken any encryption.

In theory you might be able to create a scenario where back doors (or exceptional access mechanisms) would work as intended and would only allow lawful (and one would also hope good and just) intercept. The problem is that in the real world, people don’t keep secrets well and even if they do laptops get lost, cybervaults are breached and disgruntled workers steal things. On the commercial front, if one country mandates that local manufacturers only use back doored encryption this will only create a tremendous opportunity of other nations – The Brookings Institution covered this and related topics well in “The backdoor threat to encryption.”

If good guys use back doored encryption, this does not imply that the bad guys will.

Beyond just commercial competition, one can easily imagine that “bad guys” who are savvy enough to be using encryption will probably be savvy enough to not use encryption that law enforcement has escrowed keys to.

If back doored encryption were to become widely deployed, it is likely that some people/countries would do things that we would not agree with.

While we all like to believe in a fair and just world, there are many places in this real world that are neither. Sadly in life inertia and inaction are major forces. So if a product by default ships with secure encryption, users will tend to benefit. On the flip side, were back doors to be mandated in major markets, one could expect to see further spread and once widespread one could easily imagine that back door visibility may not be contained to exposing the activities of terrorists and criminals but also opposition politicians and journalists and others.

Law enforcement can get needed data in many ways other than encryption back doors.

For devices that an individual holds, contempt of court can be a powerful motivator to hand over passwords. However, as more and more storage and compute move to the cloud, many issues may be resolved as simply as handing a cloud provider a search warrant.

Mandated back doors could undermine open/fair markets.

Imagine two software vendors, one from a nation mandating back doored encryption, the other from a nation that does not. Given a choice of the two, particularly if security or privacy are at all any sort of concern, most would select the product that does not have compromised security. If you are a small developer house in an unregulated part of the world, these prospects probably fill your heart with delight. If you are an established firm in a well regulated market considering mandating key escrow or other back door schemes this is probably a fairly terrifying though.

In conclusion, much of the world of unpleasant surprises comes from unintended consequences of well intended actions. Giving law enforcement access to data that criminals and terrorists have encrypted seems a good thing, but it also exposes data that innocent citizens and corporations have encrypted and worst of all creates an expectation of privacy where one should not be. In the end, we can only hope that those who make the laws will listen to those who know, understand and advocate for strong encryption.

Speaking of which, please take a minute to visit our page on TLS and SSL Decryption and Encryption.