Encryption Debate: The Issue Isn’t Strong Crypto; It’s Easy Crypto


The encryption debate is poised to intensify this year.

Isaac Potoczny-Jones is research lead, computer security at Galois, an organization that specializes in innovative security technologies for military and commercial organizations.

This past April, widespread debate ensued when the White House took the position that strong encryption used by companies can negatively impact national security. While there was a clear desire by government officials to take action in the weeks that followed, they realized the public had little enthusiasm for forced decryption that would provide law enforcement agencies with a backdoor or master keys to access encrypted communications.

In October, FBI Director James B. Comey ceded as much: “The administration has decided not to seek a legislative remedy now, but it makes sense to continue the conversations with industry.” Unfortunately, new legislation in California and New York is attempting to make default encryption for mobile devices illegal.

The encrypted communications rhetoric heated up again on the heels of the Paris attacks, as those in favor of installing a backdoor in apps and software asserted, dubiously, that using encrypted apps enabled terrorists to plan the attack under the radar of law enforcement and intelligence organizations. With all of these elements swirling, the encryption debate is poised to intensify from a technology, legislative and news-driven perspective in 2016.

The technical and security communities have diligently examined the question of whether a “secure backdoor” is feasible and have widely agreed it is not. Getting security right is extremely difficult in the first place and enforcing backdoors would leave the U.S. even more vulnerable to cyberattack than it already is. At the same time, the government has also been investing in R&D for to enhance public encryption and security. It would be counterproductive to undo all that.

There’s no question that in a lot of cases, law enforcement agencies have a legitimate need for legal interception and legal warrant. However, the security community agrees that, without potentially shaking the foundation on which we’re building a secure Internet for everyone, strong encryption cannot be undermined.

Indeed, Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, remarked at a conference earlier this year that, “America is more secure with end-to-end unbreakable encryption.”

Further, strong encryption is not the real issue that faces law enforcement now. In reality, strong encryption has been available for decades. The real issue that government agencies are facing today is actually easy, default, and ubiquitous crypto. Ease of use and security are both in the interest of the public, and in line with the White House cybersecurity priorities.

Strong cryptography has been around for a long time, but the user interfaces have been terrible. As a result, most individuals and even software programmers struggle to use them effectively. Over the last few years, we’ve seen a push by technology industry leaders to prioritize easy to use encryption technologies in their products on the front end. This is an enormously positive and important development that expands adoption of secure products.  

While recent attacks have placed physical terrorism front and center, the shift to easy-to-use crypto is also critical to addressing cyberterrorism. Backdoors and storing encryption keys don’t strengthen crypto; they weaken it, and the lack of good security in commercial and government products and services has left the United States extremely vulnerable to industrial espionage from determined foreign adversaries.

Because strong and easy-to-use crypto is the right way to fix widespread vulnerabilities with critical infrastructure and other Internet-connected systems, this approach is not only prudent, but also fully supportive of the White House’s five cybersecurity priorities:

Protecting the country's critical infrastructure — our most important information systems — from cyberthreats. 

Nothing improves the security of our critical infrastructure more than strong, easy crypto. It’s already used widely, for instance with HTTPS, and that has had enormous economic benefit to the nation. Time and time again, we see vulnerable infrastructure attacked and exploited by our adversaries, and strong, easy crypto would very often prevent those attacks.

The White House should continue to study the effect of cybersecurity laws like FISMA and HIPAA and apply them to critical infrastructure. These standards should require the use of strong crypto for any sensitive information.

Improving our ability to identify and report cyberincidents so we can respond in a timely manner. 

The ability to securely exchange cyber report incidents relies completely on secure communication among trusted parties; such reports are likely to include sensitive vulnerabilities as well as sensitive personal information of individuals. This is a treasure trove of information that our adversaries would love to have. Without strong and easy crypto, it will be substantively left unprotected.

The recent congressional legislation for this type of information sharing should include requirements that sensitive information is protected with strong crypto. This will only be practical when encryption technologies become easier to use.

Engaging with international partners to promote Internet freedom and build support for an open, interoperable, secure and reliable cyberspace.

Interoperability and security rely on trustworthy published cybersecurity standards, including cryptography. Promoting Internet freedom across the globe means promoting private communication among individuals that in the Internet age can only be supported by strong and easy crypto.

The United States should lead by example and promote cybersecurity rather than weakening it with backdoors, which oppressive regimes will use against their citizens and against U.S. citizens.

Securing federal networks by setting clear security targets and holding agencies accountable for meeting those targets. 

The Office of Personnel Management hack revealed intensely private and sensitive information about millions of vulnerable individuals who have worked to support the U.S. government in a wide variety of roles. The hack was possible (in part) because of the the difficulty for developers and administrators to use strong crypto. Modern crypto is so difficult to use, even the U.S. government could not effectively deploy it in such a critical instance. The impact of these data breaches is severely reduced when strong cryptography is used, because attackers cannot decrypt stolen data.

The White House should promote efforts of the commercial world to build strong and easy crypto for end users, developers and administrators, because the U.S. government will always end up using these commercial products and rely on their security.

Shaping a cyber-savvy workforce and moving beyond passwords in partnership with the private sector.

The dominant use of password authentication for security is no accident. There are several attributes of passwords that make them the popular choice, but each of these strengths is also related to a major weakness.

These weaknesses include the fact that humans are innately bad at picking passwords, password recovery is fraught with vulnerabilities, browsers store passwords unencrypted, and emails as naturally unique usernames that users often lose access to or lose track of.

Recent efforts to address the inefficiencies of passwords, such as Apple’s work building a biometric system with strong and easy crypto that can be used for local and remote login, is a step in the right direction. And the NSTIC program by NIST is an excellent way to promote public and private partnerships to solve the password problem. The White House should continue to promote this program and others like it to improve the security of the entire Internet.

The move to strong, easy crypto over the last few years has been one of the most important advancements in securing critical infrastructure and improving the nation’s overall security posture. Strong, easy-to-use crypto, despite public perception, supports the White House’s key cybersecurity priorities and is actually one of the best ways to implement them.

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