The Dangerous Nonsense of Encryption “Back Doors”


There is a continual effort to convince American citizens – without evidence – that a “back door” must be created in our encryption systems so that terrorists do not have the upper hand.

The world’s most renown security experts insist that it is simply not possible to create a “back door” – essentially, an intentional flaw – and still be able to defend it from abuse.  This mythical “master key” can be discovered and duplicated, and thus used to create widespread chaos through our financial systems and elsewhere.

What is missing from the conversation is a proper review of the official justification being given for the back door.

The greatest flaw in their rationale is their assertion that terrorists use ordinary internet and telephonic communication methods for their plots. In light of the Snowden revelations, we should ask how this makes any sense.

We are told that terrorists are not stupid. In fact, their ingenuity and cunning were praised by our military leaders for their acts on 9/11. Why would we think they would use conventional systems for their “important” plans?

If we are to believe that terrorist are intelligent, then we must consider that it is more likely that terrorists will use unconventional methods for communication. Nothing requires them to communicate by ordinary means and there is no reason for them to do so.

They can use innocuous, “old-school” coded language like “Go to the store and by a lottery ticket. I’ll see you at 10:35.” It is clearly low tech but it is very effective. It’s unlikely that “lottery ticket” will be in the NSA’s list of trigger words.

They could also use digital steganography. This is where a message is embedded in photos by slightly changing the colors in a way that can’t be detected. Programs that do this are all over the Internet and could easily be modified or re-written. The only way to protect from this would be to shut down all means of exchanging photos.

Terrorists could also modify standard encryption in ways that make it impossible to decode. What if they use standard encryption and then broke the scrambled message into smaller pieces, sending each in a separate way? Separately, each of the pieces would be completely unintelligible.  How would we protect against that?

So, why again would terrorists use conventional methods? Are we targeting “dumb” terrorists?

What is even more troubling is that our intelligence agencies know about the above-mentioned alternatives. They also fully understand the science behind why crippling encryption is a flawed undertaking.  And, in spite of this knowledge they are still demanding that encryption be crippled. Why?

Is this really about fighting terrorism, or is it a desire to uncomplicate mass data gathering?

This brief video may provide a helpful perspective.

Senator Frank Church (NBC News, 1977)

Ultimately, winning the fight against terrorism cannot be accomplished by authoritarian factions’ desire to control the tools that Americans rely on.  It cannot be won by aiding terrorists in their goal of undermining American life.

Terrorism can only be fought through a careful consideration of its root cause.  Only by understanding why these people leave their comfortable homes and take up arms against us, then will know what we must do to eliminate terrorism.


Additional reading
The Risks of Mandating Backdoors in Encryption Products (Schneier on Security)
There Is No Good Argument for Encryption Backdoors (Slate)
Steganography (Wikipedia)
Sen. Frank Church’s Concern About Surveillance (NBC News, 1975)
Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Suicide Terrorism (Univ Chicago)
Deaths From Terrorism Increased 4,500% Since Beginning Of War On Terror (MintPress News)
It’s Time To Break Up the NSA (Schneier on Security)