Privacy SOS

Boston DA and FBI asked congress to weaken encryption, but lawmakers were not impressed

Image: Whisper Systems, a developer of open source encryption technologies.

"Just follow the damn constitution."

That was one congressman's response to law enforcement officials, including Boston's top prosecutor, who went to Washington yesterday to try to convince lawmakers that encryption is bad for public safety.

Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley admitted he doesn't know anything about technology, but nonetheless impressed upon congressional oversight committee members that Apple's iOS 8 disk encryption is a gift to "those who rape, defraud, assault, or even kill." Representative Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) was not pleased. The Washington Post quotes Lieu as saying he took "great offense" at Conley's statement, calling it a "fundamental misunderstanding of the problem."

Boston's DA isn't alone in fundamentally misunderstanding the issues. Police and FBI officials insist that it is technically feasible to install backdoors into encryption systems, granting law enforcement access to private user information but keeping out other adversaries like criminals and foreign governments. People who understand how cryptography works reject these claims outright. Crypto expert Matt Blaze told congress it's technically impossible to do what the FBI says it wants congress to authorize, which is to create backdoors into encryption systems that “only work[] for the good guys.”

Dan Conley wasn't put off by the numerous technical experts in the room who said unequivocally that law enforcement's desire for a system that lets the FBI in but keeps out China simply isn't feasible. "I’m no expert, I’m probably the least tech-savvy person in this room," he said, "but if we can send someone to the moon, we can design a secure back door."

No expert, indeed. Luckily, congress wasn't impressed by these baseless claims about the sky falling into a sea of encryption-protected crime and chaos.

And that's hugely important, because the reality is that we are living in the golden age of electronic surveillance. The FBI has spying capabilities that allow it to invade every sphere of our private lives, including our phones. Police officials who call for weakening encryption systems raise a parade of hypothetical horribles to try to scare congress into making bad policy, but notably they cannot point to one single instance in which encryption prevented cops from getting "the bad guy."

The FBI always complains about "going dark," but the truth is the opposite. The government has more access than ever before to our most private information. The last thing congress should do is force companies to roll back one of the only things keeping our information secure from governments and criminals here and abroad.

The good news is that congress seems to get it.

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.