Crypto ‘Front Door’ Debate Likely to Go On For Years

SAN FRANCISCO–Encryption is the hot new topic in security at the moment, as it has been any number of times in the last few decades. And, as in the past, the notions of key escrow, mandated legal access to encrypted systems and other ideas for helping governments defeat cryptosystems have followed right along with the latest crypto renaissance.

Much of the current spike in interest around cryptography and encryption comes directly from the revelations of Edward Snowden about the NSA’s methods, tools and tactics. That agency’s efforts to allegedly subvert cryptographic standards and defeat protocols such as SSL have drawn the attention and ire of users, security experts and cryptographers around the world. And it has had the concurrent effect of generating massive interest in encryption tools, as well. Secure email services, encrypted backup services and similar offerings are as popular now as they’ve ever been, something that makes life more difficult for intelligence agencies and law enforcement.

That problem has led government officials in the United States to bring up–again–the well-worn idea of a key escrow system that would give agencies the ability to decrypt communications and data when necessary. It’s an old idea, and one that cryptographers have said consistently won’t work for many reasons.

“There will be many, many people holding many, many keys. It just won’t work,” Ron Rivest, a professor at MIT and one of the inventors of the RSA algorithm, said during the cryptographers’ panel at the RSA Conference here Tuesday.

In recent months, intelligence officials and other government leaders have said publicly that there is a clear need for some way to address the issue of encrypted data and communications. Some have criticized technology vendors such as Apple and Google for adding strong encryption to their devices, while others have called for some version of a back door that would give law enforcement access to encrypted devices and communications when it’s legally necessary. The latest to join that chorus was NSA Director Michael Rogers, who said during a speech last week that tech companies should find a way to make encryption keys that can be broken into multiple parts, with each piece held by a different party.

“I don’t want a back door,” Rogers said, according to The Washington Post. “I want a front door. And I want the front door to have multiple locks. Big locks.”

It’s an idea that Rivest said would not work, and his fellow panelists dismissed it as well.

“The only difference between a front door and a back door is that the NSA will have to take your house and turn it around,” said Adi Shamir, co-inventor of the RSA algorithm and a professor at the Weizmann Institute in Israel. “Technically speaking, there’s a serious misunderstanding about key escrow. The head of the NSA is misusing this idea.”

But Rogers isn’t alone in asking for this kind of access. Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of Homeland Security, also brought the topic up during his keynote at the conference Tuesday, saying that encryption is a major hurdle.

“This presents a real challenge to law enforcement and national security. I understand the importance of what encryption brings to privacy. The deeper course we’re taking on encryption also poses a public safety challenge. Encryption is making it harder for your government to find criminal activity,” Johnson said. “We know a solution must take into full account the privacy rights and expectations of the American people. We need your help to find a solution.”

Ed Giorgio, who worked on both the code-making and code-breaking sides of the organization at various times during his 30-year career at NSA, said during the cryptographers’ panel that the key escrow issue is an important one, and likely not something that will be solved soon.

“It’s not a U.S.-only problem,” Giorgio said. “This will be an ongoing negotiation and I’m sure we’ll see various versions of it.”

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  • Anonymous on

    Yeah, it's true. These guys will keep bringing it up. They're wrong, they've lost repeatedly, and they will almost certainly lose this time, especially in light of exactly how many abuses they've just been caught at. But they just can't seem to let it go.
  • C on

    Rather than just saying no, provide a solution. Anyone can stand there and say, No their bad and blah blah, but to really participate try and come up with an answer. Multiple key escrows wouldnt work that has already been established. Would the creation on a single organization outside of governmental control work, or something along the lines of the IETF in autonamy, or hell make it a UN functionary. Just tossing out ideas. If there was a single organization that all governments had to bring legal documentation to for keys, why wouldnt that work? Maybe let each company hold their keys for their encryption but enclude a counter for each time it is accessed and make access require warrants. Also make access attempts or requests public record.
    • ph on

      As the US government has consistently reminded us, the best thing to do in this situation is to "just say no". Not all propositions need a compromise position, and in this case the correct response is to say no and stick by your guns.
    • Rich Gautier on

      None of those solutions work precisely because they are not secure crypto from the users' standpoint. If I am using crypto, I am going to choose a method that no one has access to. You can invent and mandate key escrow all day long - as a consumer, I'll just use something else.
  • professor on

    There aren't any solutions in this debate. It's a false dichotomy. Security pros don't readily trust the gov't or really, any gov't and for that matter any NGO. The answer is a resounding "No!". Bulk collection of any data on all civilians is a step in the wrong direction. Defeating encryption makes everything less secure. Not to mention that the whole debate hinges on a fallacy as far as the mobile space goes. We can't have Apple or Android forks automatically encrypt the device or make unlocking device impossible, because then we can't see your text messages, or who you call, or who you socialize with. Except all of the data that they are looking for is available, unencrypted (at least for the time being) in other places, like at the provider level. Facebook has certainly had no qualms about handing that data over. If we are forced to make it easy to catch criminals electronically, then we are inherently forced to make it easy for criminals to commit crimes electronically. The answer is "No, you can't have my data unless you have a warrant." No front door, no back door. No calls for "innovation" in the name of insecurity and the death of privacy as a mantra.

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