If there were any doubt that the 90s are back in style, witness the Obama administration’s attempt to reignite the Crypto Wars by seeking legislation that would force Internet services to redesign their networks and products to provide a centralized mechanism for decrypting user communications. It cannot be stressed enough what a radical—and terrible—idea this is. I’ll be writing on this at greater length this week, but a few quick points.
First, while the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) already requires phone and broadband providers to build in interception capacity at their network hubs, this proposed requirement—at least going on the basis of the press description, since there’s no legislative text yet—is both broader and more drastic. It appears that it would apply to the whole panoply of online firms offering secure communication services, not just big carriers, imposing a greater relative burden. More importantly, it’s not just mandating that already-centralized systems install a government backdoor. Rather, if I understand it correctly, the proposal would insist on a centralized (and therefore less secure) architecture for secure communications, as opposed to an end-to-end model where encryption is handled client-side. In effect, the government is insisting on the right to make a macro-design choice between competing network models for thousands of companies.
Second, they are basically demanding that providers design their systems for breach. This is massively stupid from a security perspective. In the summer of 2004, still unknown hackers exploited surveillance software built in to one of Greece’s major cell networks to eavesdrop on high government officials, including the prime ministers. The recent hack of Google believed to originate in China may have used a law-enforcement portal to acquire information about dissidents. More recently, we learned of a Google engineer abusing his access to the system to spy on minors.
Third, this demand has implications beyond the United States. Networks designed for interception by U.S. authorities will also be more easily tapped by authoritarian governments looking to keep tabs on dissidents. And indeed, this proposal echoes demands from the likes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that their Blackberry system be redesigned for easier interception. By joining that chorus, the U.S. makes it more difficult for firms to resist similar demands from unlovely regimes.
Finally, this demand highlights how American law enforcement and intel agencies have been circumventing reporting requirements designed to provide information on this very problem. As the Crypto Wars of the 90s drew to a close, Congress amended the Wiretap Act, which creates strong procedural protections when the government wants to use intrusive electronic surveillance, to add a requirement that agencies report each instance in which they’d encountered encryption. The idea was to get an objective measure of how serious a problem this posed. The most recent report, however, cited only one instance in which encryption was encountered, out of 2,376 wiretap orders. Why, then, are we now being told encryption is a huge problem? Almost certainly because law enforcement and intelligence agencies aren’t using the Wiretap Act to intercept electronic communications—preferring, instead, to avail themselves of the far more lax standards—and spare reporting requirements—provided by the Stored Communications Act. It’s always easier to claim you need sweeping new powers from Congress when you’ve managed to do an end-run around the provisions Congress put in place to keep itself informed about how you’re using your existing powers, after all.