Building devices and communications infrastructure that are resistant to compromise and surveillance has become an imperative in today’s environment, but it’s work that can run into roadblocks from government. The most pertinent current example is the encryption debate, and security experts say the security and privacy of users depends on the outcome of the conflict.
The disagreement between Apple and FBI in recent weeks has resurfaced the issue of strong encryption, backdoors, and government-mandated weaknesses. It’s been a long-running debate, with many stops and starts over the years, and this is just the most-recent incarnation. But the sides have been the same all along: law enforcement and some legislators lobbying for backdoors or weakened encryption on one side, and security and privacy advocates and some other legislators on the other. The argument for backdoors centers on terrorism and criminal investigations, while the argument against focuses on user privacy and security.
During a conversation on the topic at the RightsCon event Friday, Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, said that strong encryption is a vital component of building a secure infrastructure.
“This is a major public policy issue. We need strong encryption through every aspect of the infrastructure to protect communications and security, but that’s not the way the trend line is going and it worries me greatly,” Deibert said.
“What we’re dealing with here is a fundamental problem of politics and policy and computer security. The problem of course is that you have many agencies in government that now that are very well equipped and wear these dual hats. They’re supposed to be defending us and our networks but they’re developing capacities to degrade and destroy them.”
Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower, speaking remotely from Russia during the session, said that there are no incentives set up for vendors and developers to build secure systems. The incentives are aligned on the other side.
“This is an argument about power and authority and who holds it,” Snowden said. “There’s no commercial impetus to make sure that we’re designing safe structure from the start. When it’s more rewarding to work against a liberal, open society than to work for it, what does that say?”
Snowden used the Apple-FBI debate to illustrate the way this power structure can work. Knowing that there were other ways to access the iPhone, the FBI still chose to pressure Apple to backdoor iOS, Snowden said.
“Tech experts knew from day one that there were alternative means of getting into this phone that were not reliant on Apple,” he said.
Though the Apple issue has been resolved, at least for now, Snowden and Deibert said there are many other problems on the horizon. Privacy, in its many forms, has become the key ingredient in nearly all of these conversations, and that word does not mean what it once did, Snowden said.
“Does the public enjoy the same right to privacy that we have in the past?” he asked.