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Just as Americans face yet another devastating data breach this time with the Capital One credit card servers the Trump administration seems bent on weakening our collective cyber-security even further.
It's hard to count the number of recent devastating cyber-security episodes, whether it's on Capital One, Equifax, or the U.S. government itself. With these attacks on an uptick, it's been encouraging to see a corresponding rise in chat applications that offer end-to-end encryption a boon to everyone's privacy and security.
Messaging apps like WhatsApp, iMessage, and Signal provide consumers strong safeguards, where everyone's messages are encrypted by default even the companies that own the message applications can't access them. These services are collectively providing billions of people with protections to prevent their messages from landing in the next massive data dump (not to mention helping to protect everyone from government mass surveillance). Device encryption, too, is becoming standard on cellphones. Even Apple, for example, can't unlock an iPhone that is encrypted with a passcode.
But Attorney General William Barr wants to change all that. Last week, he delivered an ominous speech in which he claimed the U.S. government's patience with tech companies offering strong encryption is wearing thin, and that a law banning strong encryption or requiring companies build in back doors for the government could soon become a reality.
Even though Barr said improving cyber-security was a "national imperative" he added that the government would "welcome these improvements to privacy and security, and will work to preserve and strengthen them." He then spent the entirety of his talk explaining the government's desire to weaken these same technologies that are protecting billions of people so that it might gain access to conversations when it pleases.
"By enabling dangerous criminals to cloak their communications and activities behind an essentially impenetrable digital shield, the deployment of warrant-proof encryption is already imposing huge costs on society," Barr claimed. "It seriously degrades the ability of law enforcement to detect and prevent crime before it occurs."
While Barr acknowledges it's clear that end-to-end encryption (which he dubbed "irresponsible encryption") provides some consumer protections, he claims it weakens people's overall safety and national security at the same time.
Barr acts is if consumer protection is small bore compared to national security. First, encryption is protecting more than just our private information. After Apple implemented strong encryption protections on the iPhone, phone theft -- one of the most common crimes in New York City -- plummeted because the phones became almost useless to criminals. Of course, phone thefts, when done by robbery, can often become violent.
Protecting this type of information is also a national security issue. After the Clinton campaign was hacked in 2016, Clinton staffers were told to move over to Signal to better protect their communications from foreign governments.
Since then, use of encrypted apps by aides in Congress and campaign staff has only increased. In fact, there's an easy story any journalist can write if the debate over encryption heats up again in Congress. To any lawmaker who is advocating for a ban on strong encryption, simply ask them: Do you, your staff, or your campaign to use Signal or another encrypted messaging app to protect your communications? The answer will most likely be yes.
Of course, this is not to say that criminals will never use encrypted messaging apps. It's true that surveilling the content of messages may be a little harder for governments, but they are also operating in what many have called "the golden age of surveillance," where virtually everyone carries around a cellphone 24/7, which can act as a tracking beacon for their exact whereabouts, who they are talking to, and how often.
We are in a much better position providing more protections for our data, not less.
Security experts across the political spectrum (even some well-known former intelligence officials) have explained that creating a back door opens up all sorts of cyber-security nightmares, and we are in a much better position providing more protections for our data, not less. If the companies can access our data, and the FBI can as well, it's inevitable that foreign governments or criminals will too.