Opinion: Why we all have a stake in encryption policy

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
October 14, 2015

In William Gibson's latest novel, "The Peripheral," he imagines a future in which people have the ability to effortlessly encrypt spoken conversations in real time, in ways that are unbreakable to the artificial intelligences deployed by governments to eavesdrop on everyone.

It's a vision of the future that presents a timely thought experiment against the backdrop of government and law enforcement officials' calls for "backdoors" into encryption products, for use by government agencies with law enforcement and national security missions. And while the Obama administration recently stated that it would not pursue legislation to require these backdoors, the question is far from settled.

The encrypted conversation scenario remains, for now, well within the realm of science fiction, due mainly to the effortless nature with which Mr. Gibson’s characters deploy this technology. With a few exceptions, contemporary use of strong, end-to-end encryption is limited to those willing to put up with the complicated mechanics that most cryptographic tools require. There is nothing "effortless" about it.

Which is why, as director of New America's Open Technology Institute Kevin Bankston points out, the recent "apocalyptic" warnings by law enforcement of "going dark" are premature, at best. Law enforcement and other government agencies with an interest in civilian access to crypto technologies are rarely stymied by encryption, since criminals so infrequently deploy it. When it is used, there are often flaws in implementation that lets government agents bypass encryption without having to go through the trouble of actually deciphering it.

Thus, even the notional smart criminal runs into the same problems the rest of us do when we try to use encryption – it's complicated, it's nonintuitive, and when it's used incorrectly, it leaves open security holes that can be exploited. Until we reach something like Gibson’s effortless crypto, truly ubiquitous encryption is beyond our reach.

Read the full piece at The Christian Science Monitor