Debate reopens on ‘back-door key’ to encrypted data

Paris attacks prompt discussion on giving authorities access to secure codes

CIA director John Brennan, whose own email account was breached by hackers. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

CIA director John Brennan, whose own email account was breached by hackers. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters


As the world continues to absorb the full impact of the murders of dozens of civilians by Islamic State attackers in Paris, officials on both sides of the Atlantic have renewed a discussion many thought had been closed: whether or not to allow government agencies “back-door” access to the codes used to secure communications and financial and personal medical information.

US and European officials have been quick to indict technology for the attacks – although they have yet to show how, or if, technology contributed.

CIA director John Brennan, whose own personal email account was recently breached by hackers, attributed the recent popularity of secure communications to “a lot of handwringing over the government’s role in the effort to try to uncover these terrorists”, and said the effect had been to make the CIA’s ability to locate people “much more challenging”.

Privacy advocates have called the renewed discussion of encryption back doors inexcusably cynical and said that back-door access would doubtless be used immediately by criminals and terrorists.

“A sophisticated terrorist organisation will be thrilled at the presence of weakened encryption and backdoors into encryption, because we know from every reputable computer scientist that there’s no safe way to do it that will not be vulnerable to hackers,” said Lauren Weinstein, a privacy advocate who worked on Arpanet, the ancestor of the internet.

“We’re talking about the same government that’s proven itself unable to protect the information of its own citizens, and we’re not talking a few people; we’re talking millions.”

“We were shocked and saddened to learn of the attacks in Paris and Beirut,” wrote Electronic Frontier Foundation executive director Cindy Cohn, saying backdoors would “inevitably” be used for illicit purposes. “But these heinous attacks must not be used to justify further erosion of our security, civil liberties or privacy.”

End-to-end encryption

Earlier this month, FBI general counsel James Baker said the FBI had given up on encryption back doors. “It’s tempting to try to engage in magical thinking and hope that the amazing technology sector we have in the United States can come up with some solution,” he admitted, calling the idea back doors are safe “magical thinking”.

Weinstein said there was simply no way to make a backdoor “key” that only worked for the “good guys”.– (Guardian service)