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Five minutes

If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.

Einstein

Recently, FBI Director Christopher Wray spoke in a congressional hearing about end-to-end encryption and warned of the dangers that it presents to the Bureau’s efforts to fight crimes like child trafficking. You can watch a clip from his speech here: Twitter

In short, Director Wray is calling for Congress to pressure corporations and others to provide a “way to have legal access” to information requested by warrant or court order. He is leveraging examples of encrypted messages being used to arrange the sale and transfer of children in the sex trade. On the face, this sounds reasonable. It even sounds alarming that corporations are not currently forced to provide this access when the scary language related to trafficking of the innocent is juxtaposed. He assures a Congress, renowned for their lack of technological prowess, that this is not a “backdoor.” He says that the claim that the FBI wants a backdoor is a “myth” and an “urban legend.”

Now, I find that a lot of people do not understand what is meant (not to mention what’s at stake) when we talk about encryption. The type of encryption we are describing here is what is referred to as asymmetric encryption. That sounds super complicated (and it is) but for our purposes here it can be simplified. All encryption is simply jumbling up a message to keep the message private between two parties. In asymmetric encryption there is a special feature called a key pair. If, for example, you wanted me to send you private messages, you could create a key for only you called a private key. You would give me and anybody else another key called a public key. Now, I could use the public key to jumble my message such that the only person that could unjumble it is you, with your private key. If anyone else got the jumbled message (including others with the public key) they could not unjumble (or decrypt) the message. It is a one-way jumble, hence it is called “asymmetric.”

When you hear “end-to-end encryption” what is being described is the use of the jumbling method to protect a message from one user to another. For instance, if I send a text to you through iMessage on my iPhone, my phone encrypts the message and passes it to Apple. Apple passes the encrypted message along to your iPhone which decrypts it. In this scenario, Apple is not only unwilling to intercept and decrypt our protected message, they are unable to do so. That is a very important point.

Back to the matter at hand. I have tremendous respect for Director Wray and the Bureau. I also agree that the problem that he faces is very difficult. But what he is asking Congress to do is to have companies like Apple build a mechanism into the service that allows them to decrypt your messages while they are in transmission. In the above scenario, even though Apple could remain unwilling, they would be compelled by court order to decrypt our messages.

Tapping, monitoring, and inserting federal agents into private citizens’ lives is an old solution with a high collateral impact. Encryption is not the problem and requiring companies to breach end-to-end encryption is not the solution.

Unfortunately, Director Wrays is trying to solve the problem of encryption. The FBI has been trying to get ahead of (or at least catch up with) private encryption since its inception. In this case, it is my belief that child trafficking is part strawman and part dog-whistle. In the best case scenario that I can imagine, he is trying to appeal to the sense of justice in a technologically ignorant Congress while overlooking the disclosure that the FBI is already capable of compromising the security on the vast majority of smart phones on the market, assuming they are not properly updated. If this scenario (again, my best case) is true, what he is doing is negligent. More likely it is a continued authoritarian privacy-rights erosion for the sake of pseudo-security. That is, the abolition of your right to private communication in favor of easing the FBI’s access to the “bad guys.”

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