Oct 8, 2019

DOJ's latest case against encryption: It helps child predators

The Justice Department's latest arguments against encryption, presented at a summit in Washington Friday, focus on child predators and take aim at only certain kinds of data.

Why it matters: This isn't the first salvo in the encryption debate — it wasn't even the first last week — but it does show how Attorney General William Barr plans to make the case for "back doors" in encryption, a case law enforcement agencies have tried and failed to win since the 1990s.

Driving the news: Law enforcement officials have long argued that when tech firms use secure encryption methods, police and intelligence agencies can't access potential evidence even when they have a warrant.

  • Cryptographers and security experts note that there's no way to weaken encryption for the FBI without weakening it for everyone else — including hackers, thieves and foreign spies.

The arguments made at the Friday summit offer some new twists to the debate.

Child exploitation is the new terrorism: Under former FBI Director James Comey, the last DOJ official in charge of making the case against encryption, the main argument was that encryption enabled terrorism. Friday's summit shifted the argument to child predators.

  • Multiple officials noted that 90% of submissions to a child exploitation tip line, used by tech companies to notify authorities of misuse of their platforms, came from Facebook. If Facebook began to use strong encryption practices, authorities would lose some of that visibility.

Changing the debate: Barr is explicitly narrowing his case for limiting encryption to chat apps and data at rest (i.e. data sitting on a hard drive). But encryption is also important for "data in transit" — it's what prevents eavesdroppers from capturing banking or e-commerce transactions.

  • Focusing on data at rest and messages is an implicit admission by the government that implementing workarounds to encryption is inherently dangerous — and not needed when there's an alternative, like sending a warrant to a bank or retailer.
  • Risk management is a more mature way to view the encryption debate than the overconfident approach the DOJ has taken in the past. Officials have previously argued that weakening encryption brings no additional risk — FBI Director Christopher Wray made that argument at the summit — but no recognized expert is known to agree with that assertion.
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