Encryption debate heats up on the Hill in advance of Crypto Summit


The Crypto Summit, hosted by Access, is just one week away. We have already expanded capacity to meet demand, but we’re almost completely full. If you’ve been waiting to register, don’t delay.

The summit could not be taking place at a better time. Today, senior members of the Obama Administration, including the director of the FBI, visited the U.S. Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees to discuss encryption policy. FBI Director James Comey, along with officials from the Department of Justice and state law enforcement, requested a “dialogue” with the private sector to enable the government to obtain exceptional access to encrypted data. This despite the fact that yesterday, leading security experts made clear that such access would undermine the security of technology and the privacy of internet users around the world.

Director Comey championed the idea that security weaknesses are necessary for law enforcement to do its job. His call to weaken encryption began as a reaction to a series of announcements about privacy from the private sector, including one from Apple, which said it will not maintain “backdoor” access to users’ data stored on iPhones. Major tech firms have gone so far as to form “post-Snowden” coalitions to apply pressure on the government to limit surveillance. The revelations revealed that U.S. intelligence agencies have been exploiting security weaknesses in digital technology.

There’s no evidence to show that law enforcement is “going dark,” a phrase that was frequently invoked during the Senate debates. In fact, the opposite is true. Experts have rightly observed that this is the golden age of surveillance. The number of methods for investigation may be at an historically unprecedented level. Information can be stored on any number of servers, computers, smartphones, and other connected devices, and can potentially be compromised. In addition, law enforcement can, of course, continue to use traditional methods of investigation. Indeed, the ready availability of personal information may explain why a new report by the United States Courts found that there were actually fewer instances of law enforcement requesting a wiretap of encrypted communication last year than there were in 2013. The increased availability of personal information is further justification for strong encryption to maintain our security.

The “ideal” technology that U.S. officials are clamoring for —  which allows law enforcement and companies, but no one else, to access encrypted data —  isn’t even feasible. The report we refer to above, authored by digital security experts, explains that this kind of technology would inherently harm security. Indeed, it is increasingly considered a best practice to use “forward secrecy,” in which encryption keys are temporary, to limit the risk of compromise. Such a practice would be contradictory under any proposal in which the government or companies would store key data.

The public pressure applied by Obama Administration officials also runs counter to the exercise of human rights online. In a recent report, David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur for the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, rejects intentionally weakening cryptographic standards because encryption is critical to privacy and freedom of expression in the digital age. As Special Rapporteur Kaye notes, “back-door access would affect, disproportionately, all online users.”

While the discussion today may have been full of politically motivated rhetoric, the debate over encryption is a critical conversation that will have profound impacts on the rights of users around the world. We hope you join us for the Crypto Summit on July 15th in Washington, D.C. If you can’t make it in person, we encourage you to register here to participate remotely.