Encryption

The current fight over tech encryption pits tech companies and civil libertarians against law enforcement, some lawmakers and governments.

The thrust of government arguments against encryption is that law enforcement needs a backdoor to stop terrorists and child predators. Former Attorney General William Barr and Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) were two of the loudest voices demanding encryption backdoors.

Yet, WIRED reported that cryptographers at Johns Hopkins University found “government already have methods and tools that, for better or worse, let them access locked smartphones ...”

“It just really shocked me, because I came into this project thinking that these phones are really protecting user data well,” said Matthew Green, the cryptographer who oversaw the research. “Now I’ve come out of the project thinking almost nothing is protected as much as it could be. So why do we need a backdoor for law enforcement when the protections that these phones actually offer are so bad?”

Tech companies, human rights groups and civil libertarians have pushed back against lawmakers’ demands. They argue intentionally making technology vulnerable puts all consumers at risk of hacking, malfeasance and could even enable authoritarian countries to demand access to private correspondence.

  • Seven countries including the U.S. publicly opposed the use of end-to-end encryption, claiming it makes it impossible for companies to spot terrorist propaganda and planning and harder for law enforcement to investigate crimes. ZDNet noted that, “It's worth remembering that many of these tech companies introduced end-to-end encryption precisely because governments were cheerfully snooping on everyone's conversations in the first place.”
  • Graham and two GOP cosponsors introduced the Lawful Access to Encrypted Data (LAED) Act in June 2020, to require tech companies to provide the government with access to encrypted data if ordered by a court.
  • Tech companies that formed the Reform Government Surveillance Coalition opposed LAED writing, “It would leave all Americans, businesses, and government agencies dangerously exposed to cyber threats from criminals and foreign adversaries, and make us all less safe.” 
  • Graham and three cosponsors (Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)) introduced the EARN IT Act in March 2020. The premise of the bill was to make tech companies earn their Section 230 privileges, but The Verge warned it could result in giving law enforcement the encryption “backdoor” they had been seeking. Several libertarian and civil rights groups spoke out against the bill.
  • FBI complaints may have been the reason Apple nixed plans to offer end-to-end encryption for iCloud storage of phone data. Reuters reported in January 2020, “When Apple spoke privately to the FBI about its work on phone security the following year, the end-to-end encryption plan had been dropped, according to the six sources. Reuters could not determine why exactly Apple dropped the plan.”
  • Legislators demanded an encryption backdoor in 2019. “It ain’t complicated for me. You’re going to find a way to do this or we’re going to do it for you,” committee chairman Graham told representatives from Facebook and Apple. “We’re not going to live in a world where a bunch of child abusers can have a safe haven to practice their craft. Period. End of discussion."
  • In late 2019, Apple's manager of user privacy, Erik Neuenschwander, told lawmakers, "At this time, we've been unable to identify any way to create a backdoor that would work only for the good guys ... In fact, our experience is the opposite. When we have weaknesses in our system, they're exploited by nefarious entities as well."