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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Experts fear that the Department of Justice's latest argument against warrant-proof encryption, which emphasizes protecting children and focuses on the use of encrypted messengers, may make it harder than ever to resolve the encryption debate.

The big picture: The DOJ's new plea for extraordinary access to encrypted data, put forward at a summit last week, moves the debate toward systems that are harder to secure and uses cases that are exponentially costlier to address.

Background: For years, the DOJ has argued that the key reason for tech companies to implement weaker encryption algorithms was that strong encryption helps hide evidence critical to fighting terrorists. The metric the DOJ used to make this point was how many cellphones it was unable to break into to obtain this and other evidence.

  • That changed last week when Attorney General William Barr and his counterparts in Australia and the U.K. started emphasizing a different metric and a different topic. In a letter to Facebook and a subsequent conference, Barr emphasized that the key reason for tech firms to weaken encryption was to stymie child exploitation operations run through messaging apps.

The main encryption controversy — whether tech firms should design encryption to let users control who can see their data, or allow law enforcement to access data without user permission — hasn't changed.

  • Cryptographers and security experts still believe that weakening security to give authorities access to data will make it easier for everyone else, including bad actors, to access that data, too.

But, but, but: The focus on messaging apps and child exploitation adds a new wrinkle.

  • Johns Hopkins associate professor Matthew Green notes that it's harder to safely weaken encryption on chat apps than on physical phones.
  • "If China wants to decrypt everyone in the Senate’s phones," he told Codebook, "they need to physically obtain all the phones." But chat messages can be obtained remotely — they pass through the internet to reach their target.

A recent report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted a variety of other reasons that the debate should focus on phones rather than messaging apps, including chat apps that continuously change encryption keys, a valuable tool that is tough to maintain while extending access to law enforcement.

  • "[I[f good-faith debate on all sides can’t lead to more constructive discussions in this area, then there are likely none elsewhere," the report concluded.

And child exploitation is a more sprawling problem to address, in technical terms.

  • The DOJ touted Facebook as a company that was able to provide investigators with massive amounts of tips regarding illegal images being shared on the platform.
  • But there's a big difference between assisting terrorism investigations with occasional access to specific phones and assisting child exploitation investigations by building massive image analysis networks.
  • That would require platforms to invest in costly bulk surveillance systems that will inevitably rely on advanced artificial intelligence to analyze every image — and will also need humans to double-check the work.
  • Some, like Facebook, already have a version of that in place to flag illegal content on their unencrypted platforms. But messaging apps that haven't had to screen content in the past would be starting from scratch.

Go deeper

AP: Justice Dept. rescinds "zero tolerance" policy

A young girl waves to onlookers through the fence at the US-Mexico border wall at Friendship Park in San Ysidro, California in Nov. 2018. Photo: Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden's acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson issued a memo on Tuesday to revoke the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy, which separated thousands of migrant children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border, AP first reported.

Driving the news: A recent report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz emphasized the internal chaos at the agency over the implementation of the policy, which resulted in 545 parents separated from their children as of October 2020.

Biden picks up his pen to change the tone on racial equity

Vice President Harris looks on as President Biden signs executives orders related to his racial equity agenda. Photo: Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

President Biden is making a down payment on racial equity in a series of executive orders dealing with everything from private prisons to housing discrimination, treatment of Asian Americans and relations with indigenous tribes.

The big picture: Police reform and voting rights legislation will take time to pass in Congress. But with the stroke of his pen, one week into the job Biden is taking steps within his power as he seeks to change the tone on racial justice from former President Trump.

Most Senate Republicans join Rand Paul effort to dismiss Trump's 2nd impeachment trial

Photo: Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty Images

Forty-five Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, supported an effort to dismiss former President Trump's second impeachment trial.

Why it matters: The vote serves as a precursor to how senators will approach next month's impeachment trial, making it highly unlikely the Senate will vote to convict. The House impeached Trump for a second time for "incitement of insurrection" following events from Jan 6. when a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol.