September 21, 2015

Intelligence Officials Make Case for “Backdoor” Access to Encrypted Communications

News, Scenario 1

In hearings last week, the House Intelligence Committee heard testimony from several government officials—including heads of the FBI, CIA, and National Security Agency—who argued that the Government needed to maintain “backdoor” access to encrypted data.

Elias Groll of Foreign Policy summed up the argument by James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, that “the greatest online threat isn’t a crippling digital strike against American infrastructure, but the near-constant, lower-grade attacks that are carried out routinely,” a depiction closely aligned with one of CLTC’s scenarios.

“In testimony to the House Intelligence Committee,” Groll wrote, “Clapper described a permissive online environment in which hackers worldwide are able to operate essentially without impunity. That environment has resulted in difficulties for U.S. officials to deter future attacks, Clapper said, and has led American intelligence officials to conclude that cyber threats will probably intensify in the near future.”

Responding to the hearings, David Auerbach’s Slate article, “Why the U.S. Doesn’t Deserve a Back Door to Your Data,” argued that Clapper and other officials are missing the big picture. “While they spent a long time discussing deterrence and surveillance, Clapper et al. practically ignored the most crucial and central aspect of fighting cyberattacks: security,” Auerbach wrote. “Clapper and [FBI Director James Comey] stressed the need for greater deterrence of cyberattacks: not securing systems, but creating incentives against hacking . . . . In the absence of reliable attribution, deterrence is impossible, because the actor will always have plausible deniability.

The Guardian reported on a different angle from the testimony, namely that “the next phase of escalating online data theft is likely to involve the manipulation of digital information” that would “undermine confidence in data stored and accessible on U.S. networks.” Clapper, along with NSA Director Admiral Michael Rogers, “warned that a mutated phase of malicious digital penetrations would undermine confidence in data stored and accessible on U.S. networks, creating an uncertainty that could jeopardize U.S. military situational awareness.”

Meanwhile, in his piece “Encryption is a Hot Potato,” Politico’s Tim Starks wrote that both government and corporate leaders are waiting for the other to lead the way forward in developing a solution to the encryption-vs.-access debate. “No one doubts the importance of resolving the tension between encrypted technology (like smartphones) and law enforcement/intelligence collection,” Starks wrote. “But it looks like nobody wants to take the lead on it either.”

Stark pointed to Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, who said that Silicon Valley leaders recently told him “’Why don’t [intelligence community officials] give us a proposal and let us weigh in on it?’ At the same time, FBI Director James Comey put the onus on industry to find a solution: “You should not look to the government for innovation, right? We can do a lot of great things but technologically, innovation is not our thing.”

Photo Credit: Scordia

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