Weakening Encryption Could Impact Election Security, Coalition Says

U.S. Attorney General William Barr

U.S. Attorney General William Barr Michael A. McCoy/AP

An election security group said the Justice Department’s renewed calls for access to encrypted data could impact more than privacy.

A coalition for secure elections sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr Wednesday, criticizing the AG for recent comments he made calling on companies to create a “backdoor” through encryption.

The letter, published by the Project on Government Oversight, warns such backdoors—even if expressly for use by law enforcement—would weaken the security of encrypted services and devices, “opening the door” for hackers to harm users.

“While encryption does not guarantee safety from all forms of malicious hacking, it is a vital safeguard to minimize risk. The Department of Justice has previously asked companies to create a ‘backdoor’ through encryption that would be accessible to law enforcement—but it is simply not possible to create a ‘backdoor’ that could not also be accessed by malicious hackers,” the letter states.

The letter follows pressure from the Justice Department on companies like Apple and Facebook to provide law enforcement backdoor access to systems if permitted under a warrant. Apple has refused to unlock encrypted iPhones for the FBI going back several years, and the issue took renewed importance last week after Barr called on Apple to unlock two phones used by a gunman at a naval air station in Pensacola, Fla.

President Trump waded into the debate Wednesday, following a meeting with Apple CEO Tim Cook at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“Apple has to help us, and I’m very strong on it. They have the keys to so many criminals and criminal minds, and we can do things,” Trump said in an interview with CNBC. “When you’re dealing with drug lords and you’re dealing with terrorists, and if you’re dealing with murderers, I don’t care.”

The letter states weakened encryption for personal devices and private communications systems “can serve as stepping stones” for hackers to infiltrate other networks, such as election systems. Hackers, the letter states, could target campaign officials, political organizations, politicians and voters, including 3 million active-duty military and civilians overseas whose ballots are encrypted upon electronic transmission.

“Any effort to diminish the effectiveness of encryption will inherently diminish the security and, potentially, the integrity, of our elections. Hostile actors will likely direct similar efforts at campaign officials, political organizations, and politically engaged individuals in future elections,” the letter states.