The debate on encryption has heated up significantly in the last couple of months. Most of the recent discussion has revolved around a particular device in a specific case but encryption is older than that. Modern encryption systems represent the culmination of centuries of development of making sure things aren’t seen.
Encryption As A Weapon
Did you know that twenty years ago the U.S. Government classified encryption as a munition? Data encryption was classified as a military asset and placed on the U.S. Munitions List as an auxiliary asset. The control of encryption as a military asset meant that exporting strong encryption to foreign countries was against the law. For a number of years the only thing that could be exported without fear of legal impact was regular old Data Encryption Standard (DES) methods. Even 3DES, which is theoretically much stronger but practically not much better than it’s older counterpart, was restricted for export to foreign countries.
While the rules around encryption export have been relaxed since the early 2000s, there are still some restrictions in place. Those rules are for countries that are on U.S. Government watch lists for terror states or governments deemed “rogue” states. This is why you must attest to not living in or doing business with one of those named countries when you download any software that contains encryption protocols. The problem today is that almost every piece of software includes some form of encryption thanks to ubiquitous functions like OpenSSL.
Even the father of Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) was forced to circumvent U.S. Law to get PGP into the hands of the world. Phil Zimmerman took the novel approach of printing the entirety of PGP’s source code in book form and selling it far and wide. Since books are protected speech, no one could stop them from being sold. The only barrier to creating PGP from the text was how fast one could type. Today, PGP is one of the most popular forms of encrypting written communications, such as emails.
Encryption As A Target
Today’s issues with encryption are rooted in the idea that it shouldn’t be available to people that would use it for “bad” reasons. However, instead of being able to draw a line around a place on a map and say “The people inside this line can’t get access to strong encryption”, we now live in a society where strong encryption is available on virtually any device to protect the growing amount of data we store there. Twenty years ago no one would have guessed that we could use a watch to pay for coffee, board an airplane, or communicate with loved ones.
All of that capability comes with a high information cost. Our devices need to know more and more about us in order to seem so smart. The amount of data contained in innocuous things causes no end of trouble should that data become public. Take the amount of data contained on the average boarding pass. That information is enough to know more about you than is publicly available in most places. All from one little piece of paper.
Keeping that information hidden from prying eyes is the mission of encryption. The spotlight right now is on the government and their predilection to looking at communications. Even the NSA once stated that strong encryption abroad would weaken the ability of their own technology to crack signal intelligence (SIGINT) communications. Instead, the NSA embarked on a policy of sniffing the data before it was ever encrypted by installing backdoors in ISPs and other areas to grab the data in flight. Add in the recent vulnerabilities found in the key exchange process and you can see why robust encryption is critical to protecting data.
Weakening encryption to enable it to be easily overcome by brute force is asking for a huge Pandora’s box to be opened. Perhaps in the early nineties it was unthinkable for someone to be able to command enough compute resources to overcome large number theory. Today it’s not unheard of to have control over resources vast enough to reverse engineer simple problems in a matter or hours or days instead of weeks or years. Every time a new vulnerability comes out that uses vast computing power to break theory it weakens us all.
Encryption isn’t about one device. It’s not about one person. It’s not even about a group of people that live in a place with lines drawn on a map that believe a certain way. It’s about the need for people to protect their information from exposure and harm. It’s about the need to ensure that that information can’t be stolen or modified or rerouted. It’s not about setting precedents or looking good for people in the press.
Encryption comes down to one simple question: If you dropped your phone on the floor of DefCon or BlackHat, would you feel comfortable knowing that it would take longer to break into than the average person would care to try versus picking on an easier target or a more reliable method? If the answer to that question is “yes”, then perhaps you know which side of the encryption debate you’re on without even asking the question.