World’s top cryptographers on encryption backdoors: No way

RSA Conference is told.

Backdoors to break into encrypted communications are a bad idea from a confidentiality point of view, but Congress needs to act to decide how to balance that with the needs of law enforcement to catch terrorists and major criminals, some of the world’s top cryptographers told the RSA Conference 2016.

“The question is, where do you put the line?” says Adi Shamir, the “S” in RSA and a professor at Weizmann Institute of Technology.

The discussion came during the annual Cryptographer’s Panel at the conference during which the group discussed Apple’s fighting of a court order to remove security features from an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists.

Shamir says Apple has itself to blame for its battle with the FBI over decrypting the iPhone.

First it tried to put itself in the position of saying it was technically impossible to comply with decryption orders from courts. “That failed because they didn’t close this particular loophole,” he says. As soon as possible it should close the loophole and roll out an upgrade so they really can’t comply in the future, he says.

Apple chose a bad battle to fight. The FBI was waiting around for the ideal case to arise that would advance its cause, Shamir says, and the San Bernardino case was it. The attackers were dead so there was no issue of invading their rights, they perpetrated a horrific crime and the phone was recovered intact.

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Since Apple complied with similar orders in the past, he notes, challenging a different case might have made for a stronger Apple argument. “They should have complied this time and waited for a better test case,” he says. “The rule of law should eventually decide.”

If Apple ever does comply, the FBI should reveal what it found, says Martin Hellman, who along with Whitfield Diffie created public key cryptography. The pair butted heads with the NSA back in the 1970s when they published their research. The NSA, then led by Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, tried to keep them from making it public in order to keep it from being used by adversaries.

Ron Rivest, a professor at MIT

He says that during the debate over the backdoored Clipper Chip in the 1990s, Inman looked back on his opposition to Diffie and Hellman publishing and wished he had asked instead how public key encryption could be used to protect government assets.

Moxie Marlinspike, a noted security researcher and former head of Twitter’s security, says he thinks Apple is fighting to keep encryption from being weakened. “Why are we having this conversation?” Marlinspike says. “Because Apple makes products that try to serve their customers.”

He says the FBI argues that its surveillance capabilities are for the social good. “I’m not sure,” he says.” He thinks it unlikely that the terrorist’s work phone holds important information since it was left in a drawer in his apartment, while he destroyed his personal phone. Finding out for sure isn’t worth the undermining of the value of encryption. “Law enforcement should be difficult and it should be possible to break the law,” he says.

Marlinspike says a court win for the FBI could lead to even more intrusive actions. For example, the FBI might compel Apple to digitally sign applications in its App Store that contain malware to help FBI surveillance when suspects download them.

Diffie, who was also on the panel, said that the debate over encryption and technology in general will determine whether democracy itself survives. “We’re in a new era of confrontation of humans and machines. It’s the major issue of our age,” Diffie says. “Who controls the machine is who will control the world.”

In democracies people are held accountable for their actions but in tyrannies, people are denied the opportunity to have control of their actions, Diffie says, and that’s where things could be headed.

Ron Rivest, the “R” in RSA and a professor at MIT, says if Apple loses its appeal, the legal precedent it would set would be “quite breathtaking in scope.” Apple is being asked to create software that it otherwise doesn’t want to. He says forcing it to would mean that the FBI can ask any third party to do anything not prohibited by law. “What the FBI is asking seems inappropriate,” he says. “Congress should decide.”

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