Former Homeland Security Advisor: Tech Companies Have The Burden Of Proving Harm Of Backdoored Encryption
from the FORTUNES-READ-AND-IGNORED---$5 dept
Last week’s one-sided “hearing” on encryption — hosted by an irritated John McCain, who kept interrupting things to complain that Apple hadn’t showed up to field false accusations and his general disdain — presented three sides of the same coin. Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance again argued that the only way through this supposed impasse was legislation forcing companies to decrypt communications for the government. The other two offering testimony were former Homeland Security Advisor Ken Wainstein and former NSA Deputy Director Chris Inglis.
Not much was said in defense of protections for cellphone users. Much was made of the supposed wrongness of law enforcement not being able to access content and communications presumed to be full of culpatory evidence.
But one of the more surprising assertions was delivered by a former government official. Wainstein’s testimony [PDF] — like Vance’s — suggested the government and phone makers start “working together.” “Working together” is nothing more than a euphemism for “make heavy concessions to the government and prepare to deliver the impossible,” as Patrick Tucker of Defense One points out. Wainstein says phone manufacturers must do more than theorize that weakened encryption would harm them or their companies. They must hand over “hard data” on things that haven’t happened yet.
Kenneth L. Wainstein, a former assistant attorney general for national security at the Department of Justice, told lawmakers that the burden is on technology companies and privacy advocates to show how backdoors would harm user security, rather than on law enforcement to prove that altering the encryption scheme would be safe.
“For the tech industry and civil liberties groups, this means laying out technically specific support for the contention that a government accommodation would undermine the integrity of default encryption. They should provide hard data that demonstrates exactly how—and how much—each possible type of accommodation would impact their encryption systems. It is only when Congress receives that data that it can knowledgeably perform its deliberative function and balance the potential cybersecurity dangers posed by a government accommodation against the national security and law enforcement benefits of having such an accommodation in place,” he said.
The only thing harder than proving a negative is proving how badly things might go if backdoors are inserted or companies are required to retain encryption keys.
As usual, the “smart guys” are ahead of the curve on this bizarre demand. Last year, multiple encryption experts collaborated on a research paper [PDF] that laid out the problems that would result from government-mandated access.
In this report, a group of computer scientists and security experts, many of whom participated in a 1997 study of these same topics, has convened to explore the likely effects of imposing extraordinary access mandates. We have found that the damage that could be caused by law enforcement exceptional access requirements would be even greater today than it would have been 20 years ago. In the wake of the growing economic and social cost of the fundamental insecurity of today’s Internet environment, any proposals that alter the security dynamics online should be approached with caution. Exceptional access would force Internet system developers to reverse forward secrecy design practices that seek to minimize the impact on user privacy when systems are breached. The complexity of today’s Internet environment, with millions of apps and globally connected services, means that new law enforcement requirements are likely to introduce unanticipated, hard to detect security flaws.
So, if Wanstein is looking for answers, he already has them. So does James Comey. So does Cyrus Vance. (Although, to be fair, Vance hasn’t really feigned much concern for tech companies or their customers.) They just don’t like the answers they’ve received. This is why they continue to claim that a perfectly safe, government-mandated encryption backdoor is just a “smart guy” breakthrough away. Any day now, someone at Apple or Google will shout “Eureka” and hand over the unicorn Comey, et al insist must exist.