Like most arguments, the encryption debate has gotten more absurd and contentious as time has gone on. And now it appears to have reached its illogical and inevitable denouement, with FBI Director James Comey calling for an “adult conversation” about encryption.
One of the oft-overlooked parts of this story is that the encryption debate isn’t actually a debate at all. Debates (of the non-political kind) typically include civilized language, well-reasoned arguments, and, most importantly, an end. This mess has none of those elements. Instead, it has anger, name calling, and deeply entrenched positions on both sides. It’s understandable, given the stakes, but it’s counterproductive and is doing neither side any good at the moment.
By virtue of his position as head of the FBI, Comey has been at the center of much of the dialogue on this issue, and his position has remained consistent. Even before the Apple-FBI fight, Comey and the bureau have maintained that there should be a compromise that allows law enforcement agencies to gain access to encrypted devices. This idea pre-dates Comey’s tenure by several decades, but it has become more urgent lately as both Apple and Google have implemented default encryption for their mobile operating systems and many messaging and chat systems have done the same. This makes life more difficult for law enforcement in terms of both surveillance and evidence recovery.
Encryption is a train that’s still picking up speed.
Technology vendors and privacy advocates have been pushing back against this effort, with the simple premise that weakening encryption will compromise the security of everyone, not just the targets of law enforcement. Backdoored encryption is a concept that has been thoroughly debunked by cryptographers as offering no protection at all. Or worse, an expectation of security where none exists.
Comey, however, still believes that if the two sides could just sit down and chat, they could come to an agreement on the right way to compromise encryption.
“The conversation we’ve been trying to have about this has dipped below public consciousness now, and that’s fine,” Comey said at an event this week, according to the AP. “Because what we want to do is collect information this year so that next year we can have an adult conversation in this country.”
When someone uses a phrase like “adult conversation” it means that they’re trying to claim the moral high ground and implies that what’s come before has been juvenile and pointless. That’s not a great way to begin a conversation, and it’s also unlikely to have any effect. Neither side has shown any signs of giving ground, and most tech companies have only grown more adamant in their resistance to mandated backdoors and other proposed access mechanisms. Encryption adoption among consumers and enterprises continues to grow, and the technology continues to improve.
Encryption is a train that’s still picking up speed and throwing rocks at it isn’t likely to slow it down.