Some officials within America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been pushing for reigniting the Crypto Wars, and at a recent cybersecurity conference FBI Director Christopher Wray called encryption “a major public safety issue.” Law enforcement officials from various levels of government spoke at the International Conference on Cyber Security 2018, which was held earlier this month at Fordham University in New York City. Former Director of the CIA John Brennan spoke at the conference, as well as a computer forensics expert from the FBI’s local office, and the New York City District Attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., who has long spoken out against encryption.
FBI Director Christopher Wray complained about the privacy that encrypted information affords people during his speech at the cybersecurity conference. “Being unable to access nearly 7,800 devices is a major public safety issue. That’s more than half of all the devices we attempted to access in that timeframe—and that’s just at the FBI. That’s not even counting a lot of devices sought by other law enforcement agencies—our state, local, and foreign counterparts. It also doesn’t count important situations outside of accessing a specific device, like when terrorists, spies, and criminals use encrypted messaging apps to communicate,” Wray said during his speech.
Prior to the FBI Director’s speech, Matthew Scholl, the Computer Security Division Chief of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) delivered a speech. NIST is part of the United States Department of Commerce, and they help set encryption standards for the United States government. NIST is currently working on developing standards for quantum proof encryption. After Scholl delivered his speech, he was asked a question by privacy rights activist Theo Chino if NIST was developing or working on a form of encryption which would enable the government to gain access to the data with a warrant. Scholl responded by simply saying, “No.”
This concept of warrant accessible encryption, where the government would still be able to gain access is known as key escrow, however, the concept is not all that different from when governments pressure companies to insert backdoors into their products which allow unauthorized remote access. With key escrow government would be storing decryption keys to everyone’s encrypted data, which of course could be abused and a target for malicious hackers and foreign intelligence agencies. Governments around the world frequently ask for backdoors to be inserted into products and services, and in 2016 the FBI was demanding that Apple work with them to defeat security and privacy features on encrypted iPhones of terrorists.
During the 1990s the Clinton administration and others in the federal government pushed the idea of key escrow through something known as the Clipper Chip, which would have encrypted phone calls and data while providing the government and hackers with a way to also decrypt data encrypted using the Clipper Chip. For a while it seemed as though government had lost their attempt to control encryption during the Crypto Wars, but after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 some people in government renewed calls for weakening encryption standards. And to this day some in government are continuing to call for weakened encryption, people like FBI Director Wry and District Attorney Vance, yet currently the government’s own department responsible for coming up with encryption standards is not working on new ways to let the government access private encrypted data. Last year the Deputy Attorney General spoke out in favor of weakening encryption standards.
Later during the conference a computer forensics expert for the FBI, Stephen Flatley, gave a speech in a room packed full of conference attendees. During his speech he called Apple “jerks” and “evil geniuses” for their use of encryption and creating new methods of protecting user accounts from unauthorized access. While Flatley may have been frustrated with Apple in some respects, he also stated during the conference that Apple was at times happy to work with the government. Flatley praised Cellebrite, an Israeli corporation which has worked with the FBI and other agencies of the American federal government to help break into encrypted devices. “If you have another evil genius, Cellebrite, then maybe we can get into that front,” Flatley said at the conference. He had only spoken the name of the Israeli security company, Cellebrite, under his breath as he jokingly coughed.