Mandatory encryption backdoors can't be protected against intruders, security brains trust warns

Security researchers and academics are joining forces to protest a renewed push by government agencies to be given the power to access encrypted data in the course of their duties.

Such access has become a recurring theme in the monologues of many government authorities, with FBI director James Comey arguing in a recent blog that current trends will soon see the ubiquity of “universal strong encryption” that only allows sender and recipient to see messages – but warned that this trend is “in tension” with the legally supported idea of “appropriate” access to citizens' communications.

“In universal strong encryption,” Comey wrote, “I see something that is with us already and growing every day that will inexorably affect my ability to do [my] job” to keep people safe.

“It may be that we decide the benefits here outweigh the costs and that there is no sensible, technically feasible way to optimize privacy and safety in this particular context, or that public safety folks will be able to do their job well enough in the world of universal strong encryption.... But there is no simply no doubt that bad people can communicate with impunity in a world of universal strong encryption.”

The latest volley against increased government surveillance comes as a group of security experts warned in a recently published paper that the key-under-doormat approach would amount to “extraordinary access mandates” that would cause even more damage to the integrity of the online environment than similar, unsuccessful efforts attempted by government bodies' failed Clipper chip initiative in the 1990s.

“In the wake of the growing economic and social cost of the fundamental insecurity of today's Internet environment, any proposals that alter the security dynamics online should be approached with caution,” the 15 authors of the report (PDF here) warn.

“The complexity of today's Internet environment... means that new law enforcement requirements are likely to introduce unanticipated, hard to detect security flaws.... Such access will open doors through which criminals and malicious nation-states can attack the very individuals law enforcement seeks to defend.”

The analysis, which “ended with more questions than answers”, concludes that law enforcement agencies need to be upfront about any initiatives they propose, offering “genuine, detailed specifications for what they expect exceptional access mechanisms to do.”

The high-profile academics – which include university professors in the US and UK, the founders of firms like RSA Security and Verisign, and cryptographers such as Whitfield Diffie, the inventor of public-key cryptography – warned about issues ranging from a loss of public trust in secure solutions, to the risk that mooted encryption-access mandates would drive cybercriminals to “noncompliant” messaging tools, to the challenges of building and maintaining an effective escrow system for management of encryption keys.

The ultimate issue, the authors have asserted, is that there is no way to reliably build back-door access mechanisms that can be utilised by law-enforcement authorities but not exploited by malicious, unauthorised parties.

“There’s no such thing as a data security vulnerability that only the ‘good guys’ can access,” said Mark Potkewitz, a legal fellow with policy thinktank TechFreedom. “If our government forces companies to undermine their own security, those vulnerabilities can be exploited by cyber criminals, foreign governments, and others.”

“Amplifying the widespread perception around the world that the U.S. government has a backdoor into all American web companies isn’t just bad for business, it’s bad for security, too: it will encourage the growth of foreign Internet services, which the U.S. government cannot access, even with proper court orders.”

The Australian government has been grappling with the issue of access to privileged or protected communications, with the recent passage of controversial metadata retention legislation hailed by many as a significant and worrying step towards greater government intrusion into citizens' communications.

Read more: More information sharing on cyber threats, says Abbott

This article is brought to you by Enex TestLab, content directors for CSO Australia.

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