June 16, 2015

Giving Government 'Backdoor' Access to Encrypted Data Threatens Personal Privacy and National Security

Andrea O'Sullivan

Feature Writer
Summary

The "Crypto Wars" are here again, which means federal officials are doing all they can to limit the technological tools that keep our personal data secure. President Obama and leaders from the National Security Agency (NSA), FBI, and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have been pressuring the technology community to build "backdoors" that allow government access to encrypted data.

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The "Crypto Wars" are here again, which means federal officials are doing all they can to limit the technological tools that keep our personal data secure. President Obama and leaders from the National Security Agency (NSA), FBI, and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have been pressuring the technology community to build "backdoors" that allow government access to encrypted data.

The War on Terror provides plenty of rhetorical ammunition to these anti-encryption officials, who seem to believe that purposefully sabotaging our strongest defenses against "cyberterrorists" is an effective way to promote national security. But they are dangerously wrong, as recent revelations of decades-old security vulnerabilities imposed by encryption restrictions make all too clear.

Encryption allows people to securely send data that can only be accessed by verified parties. Mathematical techniques convert the content of a message into a scrambled jumble, called a ciphertext, which looks like nonsense in electronic transit until it is decoded by the intended recipient. Simple ciphers have been used to secure communications since the days of the Egyptian Old Kingdom, when a particularly devoted scribe took to fancying up the tomb of Khnumhotep II with cryptic funeral prose. Our own Thomas Jefferson regularly used ciphers in communications with James Madison, John Adams, and James Monroe to "keep matters merely personal to ourselves."

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