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How to break the encryption deadlock

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The two sides of the encryption debate are so dug in that it's become hard to publicly discuss a compromise.

The issue: Law enforcement groups insist they need access to encrypted data lest criminals go free; security experts posit that providing such access invites global security disasters and mass hacking. No one wants to to suggest to peers that maybe some criminals should go free — or that some amount of security disasters would be A-OK.

But behind closed doors, a few government and big-tech insiders will talk about what a compromise would take — so long as their names aren't attached. Here's what they say:

Why would tech give up the hard line? Australia is on the verge of enacting an encryption law that mandates law-enforcement access to encrypted messages, and U.S. lawmakers seeking similar measures here are likely to point to it as a precedent. So, while most in the tech community still see any encryption compromise as a disaster, a few feel that it's a smaller disaster than what lawmakers might come up with on their own.

To compromise, be honest about risk: Supporters of backdoors often try to frame the debate as security versus civil liberties, rather than address the inevitable security problems backdoors will create. No compromise will emerge until lawmakers acknowledge and accept the real security dangers they are asking for.

  • There is no new technology coming to solve the problem: Law enforcement often maintains that tech firms can solve any problem by inventing new technology. But the complexity of computer code makes completely secure systems to allow extraordinary access unlikely, and creating backdoor keys at scale means creating systems that are particularly susceptible to abuse.
  • Limiting risk means limiting the use of the system: With thousands of police jurisdictions in the U.S., companies will constantly be retrieving credentials for phones. But the more frequently a system gets used, the harder it is to secure.

Be honest about who the targets are: Though the encryption debate is often framed in terms of national security, groups like ISIS will be among the least successful targets.

  • One ex-government source said, "Terrorism is the wrong argument. ISIS is well organized and smart —they will be able to get around any encryption ban. The people this will be really successful against are dumb, careless or spur-of-the-moment criminals that don't have a support network."
  • Another ex-intelligence source noted that allowing spies to use backdoors might cripple American tech firms by making their products harder to sell abroad, while providing little benefit. Intelligence already has broader capabilities than law enforcement. "We will need to say that the backdoors could not be used for intelligence," that source said.

Putting it all together:

  • Any compromise would have to be extremely narrow in scope — only applying to, say, data on a device involved in a specific crime.
  • The government may need to be prepared to repay users for the security meltdowns backdoors would cause. That may not be cheap. FedEx alone lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the NotPetya cyber attacks that used leaked U.S.-developed hacking tools — in a high-end approximation of the kind of havoc leaked security keys could cause.