Dug Campbell

The Encryption Battle Heats Up

It’s not surprising that there’s so much confusion in the minds of the general public when it comes to encryption. There are so many conflicting narratives around, each of which is wrapped up in varying degrees of political spin.

Take for example, Michael Chertoff who basically helped to create the Patriot Act in the US which paved the way for mass surveillance in the aftermath of the 911 attacks. After moving on from a career which included a four-year stint as Secretary of Homeland Security.

However, it seems that Chertoff has changed his mind. He now believes that everyone should have the right to strong encryption without the backdoors that are currently being sought by many government agencies around the world.

“I’m sympathetic to law enforcement, but nevertheless I’ve come to the conclusion that requiring network managers or ISPs to retain a key that would allow them to decrypt data moving back and forth on a particular device is not something the government should require,” he said. “If you require companies to manage a network to retain a key to decrypt, I guarantee you another provider will allow someone else in the world to have that key. What happens is, honest people will have a key to encrypted data that’s held by a third party. As we’ve seen in the past, that can lead to problems.” 

That’s quite some turnaround.

And quite different to the position of the Director of the NSA, Mike Rogers and recent statements in the UK from David Cameron. After all, even President Obama has stated in a recent interview, “I’m a strong believer in strong encryption” (seemingly contradicting an earlier statement that encryption should be unlocked by the authorities in certain circumstances).

Changes are coming: mobile phone companies are encrypting by default, there’s pressure to move all websites from http to https under the Let’s Encrypt movement and public awareness is rising. And yet there’s still a big issue here. There’s a very strong argument to say that the level of technological knowledge in order to adequately protect yourself in today’s society is one which is disproportionately damaging to those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds.

No doubt individuals and groups will continue to come forwards to protect those who inevitably are forced to rely on others to provide user-friendly solutions in this area. But working out how much protection those volunteers require in order to carry out their jobs – and who can be relied upon to provide them with this necessary support – is where we truly start to learn what sort of society we live in.

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