Washington Wants To Ban Encryption That They Can’t Break

Data security has become one of the priorities of the tech world as pressure from users and advocacy group intensifies and the promise of cybersecurity forcing tech companies to improve safety mechanisms; the White House seems to beg to disagree.

The White House, exceptionally high ranking Trump officials, are talking about the possibility of banning technologies that employ encryptions that can’t be broken by law enforcement.

The plan cites counterterrorism and police investigations as the reason behind the proposal. According to a report, the National Security Council meeting to deliberate the encryption issue — which the government reportedly calls “going dark” — consisted of the second-in-commands from several agencies. Nonetheless, as far as we know, there are no decisions that were made out of the meeting.

If true, the proposal of the White House would open a flood gate for a plethora of cybercrimes that might happen. Encryption is a way of safeguarding data — where data is encoded in such a way that only those who have authorized access on the said data can read the contents of the encrypted file.

Commonly, encryption is a way of storing information — where the actual information is miswritten using a code — that renders the data unreadable for those who don’t have the encryption key that is used to decode the information.

Linux password file
This is how an encrypted password looks like for those who don’t have the encryption key. Photo: Christiaan Colen | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Right now, most social media networks and other digital companies use encryption techniques to safeguard the data of their users like passwords, messages, and account information. End-to-end encryption, used in apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, only allows the sender and recipient access to the information sent.

And people are not happy when someone violates the supposed “encryption.” Hundreds of millions of Facebook user passwords were being stored in a “readable form” that allows thousands of its employees to access and understand it. While Facebook has already notified the users affected by the password leak, public decrying of what happened ensued; calling the California-based company not trustworthy.

But the police and the White House says that this kind of encryption limits the ability of the investigation to fully access a suspect’s data, which in turn, will jeopardize their operations. In the past, law enforcement agencies have been at odds with tech companies over encryption issues, especially when the authorities cannot decode the encryption by themselves.

In 2015, the FBI had waged a high-stakes lawsuit against Apple, the manufacturer of iPhones, because according to them, the security features in the phones make it hard for law enforcement and investigation agencies to bypass. According to the FBI, the advanced encryption systems in iPhones are hurting their investigations and are allowing criminals and terrorists to “go dark” online. They have been complaining that tech companies have been very uncooperative in helping them bypass those encryptions and now it seems that they are turning into another technology to avoid them without the permission of the user or the phone manufacturer.

Despite the hot water that federal agencies have been bathing in as the issue on hacking and encryption breaking becomes more public, the FBI, among other federal agencies in question, is yet to prove that their inability to bypass the said encryption systems thwarts their investigation.

In fact, in the 2015 lawsuit that FBI filed to compel Apple to help them decrypt the iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook, the bureau ultimately withdraw its demand due to the lack of proof of the necessity of decryption.

In the recent years, it seems like the effort of the government to push against encryption has been intensifying, with government agencies procuring technologies that would allow them to pass through encryption and locking systems.

A recent $1.2 million purchase was made by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for a technology that would essentially hack into a locked iPhone. The said contract has two components. The first one, valued at $384,000 and was made in September 2018, and another made this month for $819,000. Sources revealed that the said hacking equipment would go to the agency’s Homeland Security Investigation unit. The unit focuses on the investigation on immigration crimes, drug trafficking, child exploitation, and money laundering, according to Thomas Brewster from Forbes.

The American Civil Liberties, who sued the US government over the warrantless searches in the airport by two federal agencies said that they found that “CBP and ICE are asserting near-unfettered authority to search and seize travelers’ devices at the border.” That includes “for purposes far afield from the enforcement of immigration and customs laws” including “investigating and enforcing bankruptcy, environmental, and consumer protection laws.”

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