All computer users know how important security is; most of us rely on preventative measures against intrusions, Trojans and viruses on our computers, since having to wipe an entire HDD clean after an infection is not a rare occurrence anymore.
But that’s not the only type of security computer users should be worried about though. What happens to sensitive private data we push after it has been sent out there? While it travels through the great unknown, before reaching its final destination. Is that data safe from interception? And more importantly; is it completely safe from being ambushed or intercepted?
Well, the FBI and the Department of Justice both say ‘absolutely not’! They recently turned against two of the most powerful companies, Apple and Google, in order to force them to stop providing end-to-end encryption (E2EE) services to their clients – or to obligate them to provide the authorities with the means to actually interpret any end-to-end communications they may intercept. ‘Wait a minute, what is this end-to-end encryption, exactly?’ you may ask. Apparently, not all types of encryption are equally effective, and this particular encryption method is infinitely more secure than the rest of its counterparts – so far, at least. With all other types of encryption, even the super-hard-to-crack ones, which would take a supercomputer aeon to get through, the data is only secure as long as it is not intercepted.
Do you really know what servers your data travels through while being transmitted to its recipient? Some of them might be compromised; some might even be keeping logs of everything that goes through them! Generally speaking, the only way to be certain that even if someone gained access to your data, they wouldn’t be able to read or view it. That is end-to-end encryption; it allows your data to remain encrypted throughout its digital ‘journey’ towards its intended destination. Only the recipients of your choice will be able to read or view your data, since you will provide them with your key.
So, why would the FBI and DOJ feel threatened by such a foolproof, solid encryption system? Well, the simple answer is that they would like to be able to monitor any kind of digital communication they want, in order to facilitate their investigations. They apparently need to be able to decrypt all messages they intercept, so they turned to the Senate for a solution. In a recent Senate Judiciary, FBI Director James Comey and Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates presented their case, namely that companies such as Google and Apple should retain access to their client’s information at all times, in order to avoid compromising criminal and national security investigations!
They said that they would like to work with the internet and communications providers, in order to discover a happy medium; where customers are to feel perfectly secure in their communications, but at the same time the FBI and the DOJ will be provided with a ‘skeleton key’, which will allow them to read or view any message they intercept, at any given time. Yates and Comey didn’t hesitate to stress the importance of solving this issue, and even threatened the companies with the possibility of enforcing compliance! They seem to believe that by actually forcing the Silicon Valley to develop a way of circumventing end-to-end encrypted communications. The developers will end up presenting them with more creative results at a fraction of the time.
The FBI and DOJ also raised the moral issue of the problem as they claimed that; whichever company develops code that prevents compliance with a lawful court order should be held in contempt and they even compared the companies to citizens that withdraw information in court! And expect them to make their case even stronger by providing numbers and analytical data that would present all of the ways in which strong encryption prevented them from doing their job on important cases. However, neither of them did so; Yates only mentioned that whenever the Department of Justice comes across strongly encrypted communications, they don’t even look into getting a wiretap order. However, according to the Federal Court report, it seems that in 2014 there were only four cases where wiretaps were dropped because of the data or communication was encrypted! We don’t know what are those four cases might have been about. But we do know that the Bureau and the DOJ have multiple other methods of tracking and cracking criminal activity, anyways!
It looks like this attempt to trivialize the importance of the general public’s communications security didn’t hit its mark, and we’re glad it didn’t! As important as fighting crime and terrorism is concern, I believe that the internet should remain free. Developing a ‘skeleton key’ would render all end-to-end communications obsolete, since it surely wouldn’t take long before it falls into the wrong hands.
Think about it, if everyone else had the option. What would you choose? Would you prefer being vulnerable as long as everyone else is vulnerable too? Or would you rather remain secure and protected?