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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.

Go deeper

America is finally winning its fight against the coronavirus

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Data: CSSE Johns Hopkins University; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

America’s battle against the coronavirus is going great.

The big picture: For the first time in a long time, nobody needs to cherry-pick some misleading data to make it seem like things are going well, and the good news doesn’t need an endless list of caveats, either. It’s just really good news. We’re winning. Be happy.

Updated 2 hours ago - World

Over 70 dead in worst bombardments between Israel and Hamas for years

Palestinian Muslims exchange wishes for Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, near a razed building in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahia, on May 13. Israeli forces said they had killed a senior Hamas commander in May 12 airstrikes. Gaza's health ministry said children died in the strikes. Photo: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

At least 67 Palestinians and seven Israelis have been killed in fighting between Israel's military and Hamas since Monday, per Reuters.

The big picture: The worst aerial exchanges of fire between Israel and Hamas since 2014 continued into early Thursday. It comes days after escalating violence in Jerusalem that injured hundreds of Palestinians and several Israeli police officers during protests over the planned evictions of Palestinian families from their homes.

Biden admin grants Colonial waiver to ease fuel shortages

Fuel tanks at Colonial Pipeline Baltimore Delivery in Baltimore, Maryland on Monday. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration approved a temporary waiver of shipping requirements late Wednesday to help Colonial Pipeline transport fuel, as service resumes across the U.S. following last week's ransomware attack that that took it offline.

Why it matters: The century-old Jones Act requires ships to be built in the U.S. and crewed by American workers, but the waiver means foreign companies can transport gasoline and diesel to areas where there are fuel shortages.