Will encryption save us? No, “It’s Saturday Night!”

Last Saturday, some may have been channel surfing and mistakenly thought they were watching Saturday Night Live.  As one the 2% of voters(*) spending last Saturday night intentionally watching the debate between the Democratic candidates and two ABC hosts, I was not the only one that  noticed the flaws in one candidate’s claims for encryption that went unchallenged.

Fortunately, Jenna McLaughlin of The Intercept articulates the issues and the faulty assumptions of candidates and pundits: Democratic Debate Spawns Fantasy Talk on Encryption <read>

During Saturday’s debate, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton said the U.S. should commission a “Manhattan-like project,” a reference to the secret World War II-era atomic bomb endeavor, to address the alleged threat encryption poses to law enforcement. She also admitted she doesn’t actually understand the technology.

Clinton was largely parroting a popular FBI talking point that’s been highly publicized following the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino — that encryption is law enforcement’s Achilles heel in preventing crime — though there’s no evidence encryption enabled the plots to go undetected…

..law enforcement argues, the government needs some sort of a way in — a “backdoor,” “front door,” or “golden key” — to stop the bad guys in their tracks. For months, FBI Director James Comey has been proclaiming his wish for some sort of magical solution to allow law enforcement access to encrypted communications. Comey has repeatedly insisted that smart people working on technology simply need to try harder, or be incentivized properly.

But technologists and cryptographers have been saying for years that it’s impossible — without severely handicapping the protection encryption affords its users…

Yet the government has never presented a clear case where encryption has crippled a critical terrorism investigation, and law enforcement has other investigative tools in its arsenal — like traditional informants and tips, for example. Even when encryption is present, there is evidence that the FBI and other government agencies can hack into suspects’ computers and phones — bypassing encryption entirely.

And as Ed Snowden reminds us, be careful in setting precedents:

No matter how good the reason, if the U.S. sets the precedent that Apple has to compromise the security of a customer in response to a piece of government paper, what can they do when the government is China and the customer is the Dalai Lama?” he wrote to The Intercept in July.

Perhaps it is too much to ask in the limitations of the debate format, no candidate challenged these remarks and assumptions. Yet it is not just candidates and government officials that need to be fact checked. Increasingly it is correspondents and debate moderators:

Raddatz, ABC News’ chief global affairs correspondent, framed her questions in the debate as being about encryption as a “new terrorist tool used in Paris.” But criminals and terrorists have been using encryption for years, and encryption is also used legitimately by people around the world to protect sensitive information.

Read the full article for more of the arguments against and references to other pertinent articles.

* You might rate us “Mostly True” here as we rely on media reports that just under 8 million tuned in to the debates, assuming they reflected the U.S. population and most were eligible to vote, although considerably fewer do so.

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