March 25, 2024

Encryption Control and the Battle for Privacy

By: Caleb Larson

The rights of Americans are under assault by power hungry despots. The fundamental right to bear arms is of particular interest to them because it secures the rest from infringement. All too often, tragedies involving guns are manipulated to push political goals. Even the idea of safety and the theoretical right to it are pushed alongside fearmongering crusades to lull Americans into giving this right away willingly.

Unsurprisingly, this tactic is extended to other situations in which the freedoms of Americans disturb the goals of authoritarians. Data encryption is now a front line in this battle. Encryption allows data and internet communication to be private and readable only by the parties involved. This ability thwarts intrusion attempts by both hackers and law enforcement. Both groups are actively looking for backdoors into the mathematical algorithms that power encryption. Americans must resist the trade that dissolves their rights to achieve a false sense of safety and stand up against those looking to undermine the powerful encryption that empowers freedom of speech and privacy online.

On September 8th, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that she would be ordering a thirty day suspension on open and concealed carrying of firearms in public spaces throughout Bernalillo County, which contains Albuquerque and over 670,000 Americans. Essentially a suspension on the Constitution of the United States, this ban marks another notch in the campaign against the second amendment.

Such a grand display of executive power would ideally require a proportionate catalyst to justify implementation, but that is now what is seen in this instance. Governor Grisham is declaring a “public health order” by citing the county’s violent crime rate of more than 1,000 out of 100,000. How fickle must she think the second amendment to be if such a low bar is being used to deprive hundreds of thousands of Americans of their constitutional right. Her reasoning leaves nothing to the imagination.

“The point here is, is that, if everyone did it, and I wasn’t legally challenged, you would have fewer risks on the street, and I could safely say, to every New Mexican, particularly those folks living in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County, I believe that you’re safer for the next 30 days, we have to wait and see.”

A similar effort is being launched from law enforcement who are seeking ways to crack into encrypted data. The most newsworthy attempt was from the FBI in late 2015. The encrypted data the FBI sought was on the iPhone of one of the perpetrators of the San Bernardino mass shooting. There was a four-digit passcode standing between law enforcement and potential evidence, so they asked Apple to write software that would bypass the security control. Apple rightfully challenged the request as it would undermine the entire encryption scheme by providing a “master key.”

The FBI was able to get into the iPhone without Apple’s intervention, which raises additional questions around law enforcement’s ability to compromise encryption on their own. It also turns out that the FBI had asked Apple for help before they had done everything they could to access the device. It seems that the FBI was potentially looking to get easy access to all iPhones rather than only pursuing this nuclear option as a last resort.

The result was a partial victory for encryption advocates as nothing was fundamentally undermined. However, this did not stop the FBI from trying again four years later. Just like in the first case, a mass shooting was the motivation behind the FBI’s request for Apple to unlock two iPhones, of which the FBI were able to get into without Apple’s help. The calls for the creation of a backdoor were extra loud this time. Former Attorney General William Barr expressed his desire for a “legislative solution” to what former FBI Director Christopher Wray called the “Apple problem.”

It is not an Apple problem they were facing but rather a government check. The only secret part of encryption is the key, or password, that is used to encrypt and decrypt the data. However, if a backdoor is created at the behest of the government, then it doesn’t matter what the key is set to, there is always a way to get around it. This powerful access would apply to all data that uses the encryption method, and it would be in the hands of a government that is increasingly keen on cracking down on speech.

A backdoor is simply a vulnerability in the encryption algorithm, meaning it can be found and exploited just like the vulnerabilities in every other software. If the backdoor is found then the encryption scheme is useless, so any data already encrypted with it that has been stolen or that is mistakenly encrypted with it after compromise is at risk of future decryption. To prevent this from happening, the government would have to keep the backdoor a secret and hackers would have to overlook it. Both scenarios are unlikely, making the prospect of compromise quite likely.

Apple has continued to fight for encryption. They announced in 2022 that they would be rolling out end-to-end encryption for iCloud. This change makes it harder for hackers to get into user data stored in iCloud as pointed out in Apple’s announcement. The FBI responded by saying this change “hinders [their] ability to protect the American people.”

That is always the excuse used when the government needs to diminish the rights of their citizens. The most egregious curtailing of the rights of Americans, the USA PATRIOT Act, came on the heels of 9/11. The effects are still being felt from this reaction that gave American intelligence agencies unprecedented levels of surveillance power. Now that the global war on terror is sunsetting, these powers are being turned inward towards what the FBI calls “domestic terrorism.” Government power is rarely given up once granted and without clear goals it usually runs rampant.

Despite clear articulations contained within America’s founding documents of the importance of an armed populace, gun control remains an avenue of authority that many in leadership want to head down. Gun control stifles the ability for tyranny to arise while also allowing the citizenry to defend themselves without government assistance. It seems the most effective way for politicians to get around this is to arouse panic around the dangers that gun availability poses.

Much in the same way, politicians will arouse panic on the dangers that encryption availability poses. Tragedies such as the mass shootings in San Bernardino and Pensacola are horrific, but they do not justify the overreaction of providing the federal government, and anyone who manages to crack their defenses, with a key into every locked iPhone owned by an American. Should the government also have a key to every locked door and safe so that Americans can be better protected from danger?

As with any right there are commensurate responsibilities that can be ignored, but such abuse does not dismantle the necessity of the right. Encryption allows citizens to communicate securely with added assurance that hackers and government surveillance is not privy to the contents. Much like firearm ownership’s dual benefit, encryption prevents tyranny through free and private communication while allowing the citizenry to defend their digital and online estate from hackers.

There is a strong and concerted effort to mislead Americans into believing in the faux right to safety that requires the expansion of the powers of the federal government alongside the diminishment of their rights to resist. The right to bear arms has been under siege for some time, and the inner workings of the strategy have been laid bare. It is plain to see that data encryption is receiving the same attention because of its enablement of free speech and privacy. Americans must remain resolute in their resistance to a world in which the government owns all the guns and keeps all the secrets.