Top security official, spouts NonScience Nonsense

We are used to climate change deniers ignoring science and ridiculing scientists. Like frogs in slowly warming water, we are no longer surprised when members of Congress deny science, or members of the public and election officials tout “safe” Internet voting, despite the science showing impossibility of security and the almost daily headlines of serious security failures.

Now we have the Director of the FBI directly contradicting top security scientists – when his job actually requires him to be an informed champion of actual security.  This NonScience Nonsense is best summed up in an article this week in The Intercept: FBI Director Says Scientists Are Wrong, Pitches Imaginary Solution to Encryption Dilemma <read>

Testifying before two Senate committees on Wednesday about the threat he says strong encryption presents to law enforcement, FBI Director James Comey didn’t so much propose a solution as wish for one.
Comey said he needs some way to read and listen to any communication for which he’s gotten a court order. Modern end-to-end encryption — increasingly common following the revelations of mass surveillance by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden — doesn’t allow for that. Only the parties on either end can do the decoding.

Comey’s problem is the nearly universal agreement among cryptographers, technologists and security experts that there is no way to give the government access to encrypted communications without poking an exploitable hole that would put confidential data, as well as entities like banks and power grids, at risk.

In my early teens, a friend who did not do well in school smoked. It was a time when the dangers of smoking were just becoming public, with heavy and obviously false denial by the tobacco companies.  My friend said “If they are right, by the time I would get cancer, the scientists will have come up with a cure.”  At that time there was a lot of blind faith in science, cheered on by the media, that anything was possible – like curing cancer, going to the moon, or flying cars in cities of the future.  Science frequently surprises us with miraculous developments, yet there are no miracles. We have no cities of the future, we have not gone to the moon, hunger has not been cured, leisure and the middle class are endangered along with the planet.  Yet, we have miraculous cell phones and the Internet, along  with inaccurate and distorted ideas of risks and fears.  Some fears are overblown and unjustified, while in other areas we have a false sense of security.

Director Comey runs an agency which for years has claimed unquestioned expertise in matching fingerprints, blood samples, and hair samples, all of which have proven highly inaccurate, with little proof of accuracy in practice or in theory.

Sadly and dangerously, Comey’s blind faith combined in scientists coupled with distrust of  those same scientists is matched by many in Congress:

Comey said American technologists are so brilliant that they surely could come up with a solution if properly incentivized.

Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, was incredulous about Comey’s insistence that experts are wrong: “How does his head not explode from cognitive dissonance when he repeats he has no tech expertise, then insists everyone who does is wrong?” he tweeted during the hearing.

Prior to the committee hearings, a group of the world’s foremost cryptographers and scientists wrote a paper including complex technical analysis concluding that mandated backdoor keys for the government would only be dangerous for national security. This is the first time the group has gotten back together since 1997, the previous instance in which the FBI asked for a technical backdoor into communications.

But no experts were invited to testify, a fact that several intelligence committee members brought up, demanding a second hearing to hear from them.

Hopefully Congress will hear from scientists – scientists who represent objective, predominant security expertise – and Congress will listen to them.


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