Steven Levy has an article out in Wired this week in which he, vis-a-vis the persons he interviewed, proclaims that the ‘going dark’ solution has been solved to the satisfaction of (American) government agencies and (unnamed and not quoted) ‘privacy purists’.1 Per the advocates of the so-called-solution, should the proposed technical standard be advanced and developed then (American) government agencies could access encrypted materials and (American) users will enjoy the same degrees of strong encryption as they do today. This would ‘solve’ the problem of (American) agencies’ investigations being stymied by suspects’ adoption of encrypted communications systems and personal devices.
Unfortunately Levy got played: the proposal he dedicates his article to is just another attempt to advance a ‘solution’ that doesn’t address the real technical or policy problems associated with developing a global backdoor system to our most personal electronic devices. Specifically the architect of the solution overestimates the existent security characteristics of contemporary devices,2 overestimates the ability of companies to successfully manage a sophisticated and globe-spanning key management system,3 fails to address international policy issues about why other governments couldn’t or wouldn’t demand similar kinds of access (think Russia, China, Iran, etc),4 fails to contemplate an adequate key revocation system, and fails to adequately explain why why the exceptional access system he envisions is genuinely needed. With regards to that last point, government agencies have access to more data than ever before in history and, yet, because they don’t have access to all of the data in existence the agencies are claiming they are somehow being ‘blinded’.
As I’ve written in a draft book chapter, for inclusion in a book published later this year or early next, the idea that government agencies are somehow worse off than in the past is pure nonsense. Consider that,
[a]s we have embraced the digital era in our personal and professional lives, [Law Enforcement and Security Agencies] LESAs have also developed new techniques and gained additional powers in order to keep pace as our memories have shifted from personal journals and filing cabinets to blogs, social media, and cloud hosting providers. LESAs now subscribe to services designed to monitor social media services for intelligence purposes, they collect bulk data from telecommunications providers in so-called ‘tower dumps’ of all the information stored by cellular towers, establish their own fake cellular towers to collect data from all parties proximate to such devices, use malware to intrude into either personal endpoint devices (e.g. mobile phones or laptops) or networking equipment (e.g. routers), and can even retroactively re-create our daily online activities with assistance from Canada’s signals intelligence agency. In the past, each of these kinds of activities would have required dozens or hundreds or thousands of government officials to painstakingly follow persons — many of whom might not be specifically suspected of engaging in a criminal activity or activity detrimental to the national security of Canada — and gain lawful entry to their personal safes, install cameras in their homes and offices, access and copy the contents of filing cabinets, and listen in on conversations that would otherwise have been private. So much of our lives have become digital that entirely new investigative opportunities have arisen which were previously restricted to the imaginations of science fiction authors both insofar as it is easier to access information but, also, because we generate and leave behind more information about our activities vis-a-vis our digital exhaust than was even possible in a world dominated by analog technologies.
In effect: the ‘solution’ covered by Levy doesn’t clearly articulate what problem must be solved and it would end up generating more problems than it solves by significantly diminishing the security properties of devices while, simultaneously, raising international policy issues of which countries’ authorities, and under what conditions, could lawfully obtain decryption keys. Furthermore, companies and their decryption keys will suddenly become even more targeted by advanced adversaries than they are today. Instead of even attempting to realistically account for these realities of developing and implementing secure systems, the proposed ‘solution’ depends on a magical pixie dust assumption that you can undermine the security of globally distributed products and have no bad things happen.5
The article as written by Levy (and the proposed solution at the root of the article) is exactly the kind of writing and proposal that gives law enforcement agencies the energy to drive a narrative that backdooring all secure systems is possible and that the academic, policy, and technical communities are merely ideologically opposed to doing so. As has become somewhat common to say, while we can land a person on the moon, that doesn’t mean we can also land a person on the sun; while we can build (somewhat) secure systems we cannot build (somewhat) secure systems that include deliberately inserted backdoors. Ultimately, it’s not the case that ‘privacy purists’ oppose such solutions to undermine the security of all devices on ideological grounds: they’re opposed based on decades of experience, training, and expertise that lets them recognize such solutions as the charades that they are.
- I am unaware of a single person in the American or international privacy advocacy space who was interviewed for the article, let alone espouses positions that would be pacified by the proposed solution. ↩
- Consider that there is currently a way of bypassing the existing tamper-resistant chip in Apple’s iPhone, which is specifically designed to ‘short out’ the iPhone if someone attempts to enter an incorrect password too many times. A similar mechanism would ‘protect’ the master key that would be accessible to law enforcement and security agencies. ↩
- Consider that Microsoft has, in the past, lost its master key that is used to validate copies of Windows as legitimate Microsoft-assured products and, also, that Apple managed to lose key parts of its iOS codebase and reportedly its signing key. ↩
- Consider that foreign governments look at the laws promulgated by Western nations as justification for their own abusive and human rights-violating legislation and activities. ↩
- Some of the more unhelpful security researchers just argue that if Apple et al. don’t want to help foreign governments open up locked devices they should just suspend all service into those jurisdictions. I’m not of the opinion that protectionism and nationalism are ways of advancing international human rights or of raising the qualities of life of all persons around the world; it’s not morally right to just cast the citizens of Russia, Ethiopia, China, India, Pakistan, or Mexico (and others!) to the wolves of their own oftentimes overzealous or rights abusing government agencies. ↩
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