Encryption doesn't kill people (Column)

Richard Burr

Richard Burr

We're chasing ghosts again.

Just days after the Paris attack, the Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, weighed in on encryption and its perceived role in the terrorist attacks. He was quoted in the Washington Post saying that "it is likely that encryption, end-to-end encryption, was used to communicate between those individuals in Belgium, in France, and in Syria," and that "we need to begin the debate on what we do on encrypted networks, because it makes us blind to the communications and to the actions of potential adversaries."

While he would later say that legislation wasn't on the table yet, the tone of Burr and his fellow senators should concern you and everyone who has a digital footprint.

We saw the same tone again this week from the men and women running for president, knee-jerking to the events that transpired in San Bernardino and in the Los Angeles School District.

Carly Fiorina wants companies to voluntarily hand over encryption keys so that terrorists can be monitored, while Donald Trump wants to shut off chunks of the Internet that they're using. Gov. John Kasich wants to "solve the encryption problem" as if it needs to be wiped from the face of the Earth. Hillary Clinton is calling for Silicon Valley to disrupt ISIS, which is a fancy way of her saying she wants encryption back doors implemented by tech groups.

All of this should frighten you because many of the top candidates for president, according to the polls, are spitting on the Fourth Amendment by using fear to have you willingly hand over your privacy rights.

Encryption and the purpose it serves eludes them because of their fundamental lack of understanding in how the Internet works. Ever since Snowden, and even well before we found out that the National Security Agency was logging petabytes (a thousand terabytes) of information on all of us, the free citizens of the world have made it clear that we demand our privacy. We've written novels about it, made dystopian films on what happens when government overreaches. We fight against Big Brother because we know that privacy is required for a free society.

The Internet was not born with security in mind, and therefore is fundamentally flawed when it comes to protecting data in transit. Over time, we've borrowed techniques from Caesar and other ancient civilizations to implement cryptography so that we can do the things that we do on the Internet.

Banking is, for the most part, safe thanks to encryption and the use of SSL certificates and keys. Public email offered by groups such as Google is encrypted not only between you and Google, but within the company itself.

Encryption is the fundamental link of trust on the Internet, and any erosion of that trust will have tidal consequences on everything that relies on it.

The discussion around encryption looks eerily familiar. Bad guys use messaging platforms that are encrypted to coordinate attacks. Attacks are successful. Governments want to talk about encryption and its role in acts of mass violence.

Encryption doesn't kill people. Encryption is a tool. People who kill people might use encryption, though.

Just like the gun debate, we're looking for a simple solution to a complex problem. There are literally billions of people who utilize encryption to secure transactions, messages, and more every single day. It is a tool to preserve privacy in the digital world. We cannot blame encryption for bad guys talking to each other, just like we cannot blame the gun for the man who decides to pull the trigger.

There's a slight caveat to this: the benefits of encryption will disintegrate if it's regulated because any weakening of encryption standards weakens security for all. Back doors used by governments and investigators can, and would be, exploited by black hats the minute they're implemented. Weakening encryption strength is begging for a spike in brute force attacks that otherwise would be mathematically ineffective.

Bypassing encryption cannot be a debate topic because digital networks that support the infrastructure of society rely on encryption to keep communication safe, and any weakness or door used by someone other than the user or sender will be the Achilles' heel that brings the system down. That hypothetical world is significantly less safe than the one these politicians are offering you.

Benjamin Franklin famously said, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." At a time when politicians manipulate an anxious electorate and pull scapegoats out of thin air to provide perceived safety, I'm starting to think that it doesn't take an explosive vest to incite fear in the masses.