The End of Encryption

Union Jack Flag with Binary Code

The Home Secretary of the United Kingdom, Amber Rudd, has again called for the end of end-to-end encryption in apps such as WhatsApp, in an effort to combat the spread of terrorism. This sentiment is similar to that expressed by former FBI director James Comey, who repeatedly stated a desire that criminals and terrorists be unable to communicate through encrypted channels.

One article suggested that the UK is moving beyond mere rhetoric on the issue, and could potentially compel technology companies to provide “backdoors” or otherwise access encrypted communications.  When asked in an interview how such a move would function, in light of the role encryption plays in securing the entire infrastructure, Rudd said “…encryption is important for banking, for everything else as you say. But we need to do better to stop terrorists being able to use it.”

Unfortunately, there is not an option for encryption that works properly for the good guys, but can be discarded for the bad guys. Cryptography researchers have said for years that breakable encryption is insecure encryption, and any attempt at a “backdoor” will be undoubtedly discovered and used for criminal activities.

The ongoing debates about encryption and the balance between privacy and the needs of law enforcement also highlights the growing tension between political decision making and technological reality. Many politicians are not familiar with the basic aspects of computer science, and are thus prone to gaffes when discussing the role encryption should play in national security and policy-making.

Countless articles have highlighted some of the disconnects between the mathematical reality behind cryptographic protocols and politicians push for access to terrorists’ encrypted data. It’s clear that encryption is here to stay, and law enforcement officials and policy makers would be wise to learn how it works, in order to protect the vast majority of citizens, and realistically fight terrorism in the digital age.