For months, the FBI director and such bigtime politicians as Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Donald Trump have been raising concerns over how tech companies like Apple and Google provide encryption software that protects customer data not only from hackers and snoops but from law enforcement, too.
FBI director James Comey, for example, repeatedly has maintained that law enforcement is "going dark," unable "to access the evidence we need to prosecute crime and prevent terrorism."
Before they continue their campaign to strongarm tech firms into abandoning secure systems that customers clearly desire, or installing a so-called "back door" available to government agents, they should read a new report from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University on the encryption debate.
The report, titled "Don't Panic: Making Progress on the 'Going Dark' Debate," concludes the alarmists are wrong and that government will continue to have a wide range of ways to deploy surveillance on terrorist suspects and other dangerous lawbreakers.
The report was written not by a cabal of civil libertarians, either, although their position was certainly heard. Other participants included the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center as well as two current members of the National Security Agency.
And the bottom line? "In this report, we're questioning whether the 'going dark' metaphor used by the FBI and other government officials fully describes the future of the government's capacity to access communications," said Berkman Center fellow Bruce Schneier. "We think it doesn't. While it may be true that there are pockets of dimness, there other areas where communications and information are actually becoming more illuminated, opening up more vectors for surveillance."
Moreover, the critics of encryption don't identify a satisfactory alternative. Billions of legitimate Internet transactions rely on users' expectation of privacy and security. But once a back door to law enforcement is cracked, sophisticated hackers, thieves and foreign governments are likely to slip through, too.
"You can't have a back door that's only for the good guys," Apple chief executive Tim Cook has said.
The executive director of San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation is even more emphatic. "There is not a single prominent cryptographer who has said publicly that what law enforcement wants is possible," Cindy Cohn wrote in The Wall Street Journal.
In the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks, it is understandable that law enforcement and politicians would seize the opportunity to press the case against encryption. But their arguments are short-sighted, impractical and will undermine the overall security of Americans in too many other ways.
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