The myth of ‘backdoor’ data access

NSA director Admiral Michael Rogers speaks at the 2015 National Conference of the State Guard Association of the United States. (Photo courtesy of Maryland National Guard | FLICKR)

The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has been turning many heads the past few years over its controversial surveillance program. But recently, as reported by CNN Money, retired four-star general and former head of the NSA, Michael Hayden, made headlines for suggesting that the government should not end private data encryption.

Current FBI Director James Comey has criticized tech companies such as Google and Apple for helping terrorists “go dark.” He specifically criticized the practice of giving customers the only key to unlock their devices and personal chat history. Comey wants these tech companies to retain keys so that devices could be accessed through a backdoor, pending a court warrant.

While speaking at a cybersecurity conference in Miami Beach, Hayden said, “I disagree with Jim Comey. I actually think end-to-end encryption is good for America.”

There is some consensus among America’s tech professionals and academics that data encryption protects everything by keeping everyone out, including criminals and foreign spies. Denying the U.S. government access to “backdoors” not only protects individuals from a variety of threats, but it also could enable the U.S. government to better protect itself from foreign cyber-attacks.

Last October, The Wall Street Journal reported that CrowdStrike Inc., a cybersecurity firm, warned that its customers in the technology and pharmaceutical industries had faced unsuccessful intrusions from Chinese-linked hackers. And last September, as reported by the BBC, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management had millions of fingerprints stolen by a government hack, and most blamed China as the culprit.

It is clear the U.S. government has proved itself, at best, to be a struggling player and, at worst, an incompetent player in the field of cybersecurity. Still, this is the same government that believes it knows best on how to deal with cybercrime.

“There is no such thing as a backdoor that just the government has. That’s a pipe dream in the purest sense of the word,” said Lucas Wittwer, a junior at DePaul majoring in information assurance and security engineering. “The moment you make a backdoor so that the government has access, the Chinese, Russians and even unscrupulous private parties have your data. Saying it is required for national security is borderline asinine.”

In regards to the threat of terrorism which many in Washington have raised concerns about, Wittwer believes there are more effective ways of stopping terrorist attacks.

“Multiple studies have concluded that most communication for terrorism happens in ‘clear text’ without encryption,” Wittwer said. “A recent example is the Paris attacks. They were discussed in detail in a Facebook group.”

Perhaps most concerning of all is the current lack of media coverage. Even in the 2016 presidential races, most candidates have remained vague when asked about the issue of data encryption.

As reported in a Time article in January, the main Democratic candidates appeared to be “out of the loop” regarding a debate question that asked about encryption technology.

Bernie Sanders completely derailed when he said, “it is not only the government that we have to worry about, it is private corporations.”

Hillary Clinton also largely avoided the question, but offered something more on point when she suggested “better intelligence cooperation.”

The Republican field is largely on the same page, with most candidates believing the U.S. government should have greater powers over digital communications, even if most debate answers were vague or hard to follow. The clear exceptions were Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Company, and the Libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul.

Fiorina said she was against forcing companies to decrypt data, but that closer cooperation between social media companies and the U.S. government was necessary. Paul warned of using surveillance measures that would amount to tactics similar to those used in China or North Korea.

Politics may be complicating the issue, but we cannot let it compromise our resolve in sticking to the principles set forth by our Founding Fathers. The Federal government’s attempts to force companies and individuals to decrypt their private data amount to a huge affront on our personal liberties and our nation’s security.