The Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS)

The Center for Education and Research in
Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS)

Déjà Vu All Over Again: The Attack on Encryption



by Spaf
Chair, ACM US Public Policy Council (USACM)

About 20 years ago, there was a heated debate in the US about giving the government mandatory access to encrypted content via mandatory key escrow. The FBI and other government officials predicted all sorts of gloom and doom if it didn’t happen, including that it would prevent them from fighting crime, especially terrorists, child pornographers, and drug dealers. Various attempts were made to legislate access, including forced key escrow encryption (the “Clipper Chip”). Those efforts didn’t come to pass because eventually enough sensible — and technically literate — people spoke up. Additionally, the economic realities also made it clear that people weren’t knowingly going to buy equipment with government backdoors built in.

Fast forward to today. In the intervening two decades, the forces of darkness did not overtake us as a result of no restrictions on encryption. Yes, there were some terrorist incidents, but either there was no encryption involved that made any difference (e.g., the Boston Marathon bombing), or there was plenty of other evidence but it was never used to prevent anything (e.g., the 9/11 tragedy). Drug dealers have not taken over the country (unless you consider Starbucks coffee a narcotic). Authorities are still catching and prosecuting criminals, including pedophiles and spies. Notably, even people who are using encryption in furtherance of criminal enterprises, such as Ross “Dread Pirate Roberts” Ulbricht, are being arrested and convicted. In all these years, the FBI has yet to point to anything significant where the use of encryption frustrated their investigations. The doomsayers of the mid-1990s were quite clearly wrong.

However, now in 2015 we again have government officials raising a hue and cry that civilization will be overrun, and law enforcement will be rendered powerless unless we pass laws mandating that back doors and known weaknesses be put into encryption on everything from cell phones to email. These arguments have a strong flavor of déjà vu for those of us who were part of the discussion in the 90s. They are even more troubling now, given the scope of government eavesdropping, espionage, and massive data thefts: arguably, encryption is more needed now that it was 20 years ago.

USACM, the Public Policy Council of the ACM, is currently discussing this issue — again. As a group, we made statements against the proposals 20 years ago. (See, for instance, the USACM and IEEE joint letter to Senator McCain in 1997). The arguments in favor of weakening encryption are as specious now as they were 20 years ago; here are a few reasons why:

  • Weakening encryption to catch a small number of “bad guys” puts a much larger community of law-abiding citizens and companies at risk. Strong encryption is needed to help protect data at rest and in transit against criminal interception;
  • A “golden key” or weakened cryptography is likely to be discovered by others. There is a strong community of people working in security — both legitimately and for criminal enterprises — and access to the “key” or methods to exploit the weaknesses will be actively sought. Once found, untold millions of systems will be defenseless — some, permanently.
  • There is no guarantee that the access methods won’t be leaked, even if they are closely held. There are numerous cases of blackmail and bribery of officials leading to leaked information. Those aren’t the only motives, either. Consider Robert Hanssen, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea (Bradley) Manning: three individuals with top security clearances who stole/leaked extremely sensitive and classified information. Those are only the ones publicly identified so far. Human nature and history instruct us that they won’t be the last.
  • As recently disclosed incidents — including data exfiltration from the State Department, IRS, and OPM — have shown, the government isn’t very good at protecting sensitive information. Keys will be high-value targets. How long before the government agencies (and agents) holding them are hacked?
  • Revelations of government surveillance in excess of legal authority, past and recent, suggest that any backdoor capability in the hands of the government may possibly (likely?) be misused. Strong encryption is a form of self-protection.
  • Consumers in other countries aren’t going to want to buy hardware/software that has backdoors built in for the US government. US companies will be at a huge disadvantage in selling into the international marketplace. Alternatively, other governments will demand the same keys/access, ostensibly for their own law enforcement purposes. Companies will need to accede to these requests, thus broadening the scope of potential disclosure, as well as making US data more accessible to espionage by those countries.
  • Cryptography is not a dark art. There are many cryptography systems available online. Criminals and terrorists will simply layer encryption by using other, stronger systems in addition to the mandated, weakened cryptography. Mandating backdoors will mostly endanger only the law-abiding.

There are other reasons, too, including cost, impact on innovation, and more. The essay below provides more rationale. Experts and organizations in the field have recently weighed in on this issue, and (as one of the individuals, and as chair of one of the organizations) I expect we will continue to do so.

With all that as a backdrop, I was reminded of an essay on this topic area by one of USACM’s leaders. It was originally given as a conference address two decades ago, then published in several places, including on the EPIC webpage of information about the 1990s anti-escrow battle. The essay is notable both because it was written by someone with experience in Federal criminal prosecution, and because it is still applicable, almost without change, in today’s debate. Perhaps in 20 more years this will be reprinted yet again, as once more memories dim of the arguments made against government-mandated surveillance capabilities. It is worth reading, and remembering.

The Law Enforcement Argument for Mandatory Key Escrow Encryption: The “Dank” Case Revisited

by Andrew Grosso, Esq.
Chair, USACM Committee on Law

(This article is a revised version of a talk given by the author at the 1996 RSA Data Security Conference, held in San Francisco, California. Mr. Grosso is a former federal prosecutor who now has his own law practice in Washington, D.C. His e-mail address is

I would like to start by telling a war story. Some years ago, while I was an Assistant U.S. Attorney, I was asked to try a case which had been indicted by one of my colleagues. For reasons which will become clear, I refer to this case as “the Dank case.”

The defendant was charged with carrying a shotgun. This might not seem so serious, but the defendant had a prior record. In fact, he had six prior convictions, three of which were considered violent felonies. Because of that, this defendant was facing a mandatory fifteen years imprisonment, without parole. Clearly, he needed an explanation for why he was found in a park at night carrying a shotgun. He came up with one.

The defendant claimed that another person, called “Dank,” forced him to carry the gun. “Dank,” it seems, came up to him in the park, put the shotgun in his hands, and then pulled out a handgun and put the handgun to the defendant’s head. “Dank” then forced the defendant to walk from one end of the park to other, carrying this shotgun. When the police showed up, “Dank” ran away, leaving the defendant holding the bag, or, in this case, the shotgun.

The jurors chose not to believe the defendant’s story, although they spent more time considering it than I would like to admit. After the trial, the defendant’s story became known in my office as “the Dank defense.” As for myself, I referred to it as “the devil made me do it.”

I tell you this story because it reminds me of the federal government’s efforts to justify domestic control of encryption. Instead, of “Dank,” it has become, “drug dealers made me do it;” or “terrorists made me do it;” or “crypto anarchists made me do it.” There is as much of a rationale basis behind these claims as there was behind my defendant’s story of “Dank.” Let us examine some of the arguments the government has advanced.

It is said that wiretapping is indispensable to law enforcement. This is not the case. Many complex and difficult criminal investigations have been successfully concluded, and successfully argued to a jury, where no audio tapes existed of the defendants incriminating themselves. Of those significant cases, cited by the government, where audio tapes have proved invaluable, such as in the John Gotti trial, the tapes have been made through means of electronic surveillance other than wire tapping, for example, through the use of consensual monitoring or room bugs. The unfettered use of domestic encryption could have no effect on such surveillance.

It is also said that wiretapping is necessary to prevent crimes. This, also, is not the case. In order to obtain a court order for a wire tap, the government must first possess probable cause that a crime is being planned or is in progress. If the government has such probable cause concerning a crime yet in the planning stages, and has sufficient detail about the plan to tap an individual’s telephone, then the government almost always has enough probable cause to prevent the crime from being committed. The advantage which the government gains by use of a wiretap is the chance to obtain additional evidence which can later be used to convict the conspirators or perpetrators. Although such convictions are desirable, they must not be confused with the ability to prevent the crime.

The value of mandating key escrow encryption is further eroded by the availability of super encryption, that is, using an additional encryption where the key is not available to the government. True, the government’s mandate would make such additional encryption illegal; however the deterrence effect of such legislation is dubious at best. An individual planning a terrorist act, or engaging in significant drug importation, will be little deterred by prohibitions on the means for encoding his telephone conversations. The result is that significant crimes will not be affected or discouraged.

In a similar vein, the most recent estimates of the national cost for implementing the Digital Telephony law, which requires that commercial telecommunications companies wiretap our nation’s communications network for the government’s benefit, is approximately three billion dollars. Three billion dollars will buy an enormous number of police man hours, officer training, and crime fighting equipment. It is difficult to see that this amount of money, by being spent on wire tapping the nation, is being spent most advantageously with regard to law enforcement’s needs.

Finally, the extent of the federal government’s ability to legislate in this area is limited. Legislation for the domestic control of encryption must be based upon the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. That clause would not prohibit an individual in, say, the state of California from purchasing an encryption package manufactured in California, and using that package to encode data on the hard drive of his computer, also located in California. It is highly questionable whether the commerce clause would prohibit the in-state use of an encryption package which had been obtained from out of state, where all the encryption is done in-state and the encrypted data is maintained in- state. Such being the case, the value of domestic control of encryption to law enforcement is doubtful.

Now let us turn to the disadvantages of domestic control of encryption. Intentionally or not, such control would shift the balance which exists between the individual and the state. The individual would no longer be free to conduct his personal life, or his business, free from the risk that the government may be watching every move. More to the point, the individual would be told that he would no longer be allowed to even try to conduct his life in such a manner. Under our constitution, it has never been the case that the state had the right to evidence in a criminal investigation. Rather, under our constitution, the state has the right to pursue such evidence. The distinction is crucial: it is the difference between the operation of a free society, and the operation of a totalitarian state.

Our constitution is based upon the concept of ordered liberty. That is, there is a balance between law and order, on the one hand, and the liberty of the individual on the other. This is clearly seen in our country’s bill of rights, and the constitutional protections afforded our accused: evidence improperly obtained is suppressed; there is a ban on the use of involuntary custodial interrogation, including torture, and any questioning of the accused without a lawyer; we require unanimous verdicts for convictions; and double jeopardy and bills of attainder are prohibited. In other words, our system of government expressly tolerates a certain level of crime and disorder in order to preserve liberty and individuality. It is difficult to conceive that the same constitution which is prepared to let a guilty man go free, rather than admit an illegally seized murder weapon into evidence at trial, can be interpreted to permit whole scale, nationwide, mandatory surveillance of our nation’s telecommunications system for law enforcement purposes. It is impossible that the philosophy upon which our system of government was founded could ever be construed to accept such a regime.

I began this talk with a war story, and I would like to end it with another war story. While a law student, I had the opportunity to study in London for a year. While there, I took one week, and spent it touring the old Soviet Union. The official Soviet tour guide I was assigned was an intelligent woman. As a former Olympic athlete, she had been permitted in the 1960’s to travel to England to compete in international tennis matches. At one point in my tour, she asked me why I was studying in London. I told her that I wanted to learn what it was like to live outside of my own country, so I chose to study in a country where I would have little trouble with the language. I noticed a strange expression on her face as I said this. It was not until my tour was over and I looked back on that conversation that I realized why my answer had resulted in her having that strange look. What I had said to her was that *I* had chosen to go to overseas to study; further, I had said that *I* had chosen *where* to go. That I could make such decisions was a right which she and the fellow citizens did not have. Yes, she had visited England, but it was because her government chose her to go, and it was her government which decided where she should go. In her country, at that time, her people had order, but they had no liberty.

In our country, the domestic control of encryption represents a shift in the balance of our liberties. It is a shift not envisioned by our constitution. If ever to be taken, it must be based upon a better defense than what “Dank,” or law enforcement, can provide.

What you can do

Do you care about this issue? If so, consider contacting your elected legislators to tell them what you think, pro or con. Use this handy site to find out how to contact your Representative and Senators.

Interested in being involved with USACM? If so, visit this page. Note that you first need to be a member of ACM but that gets you all sorts of other benefits, too. We are concerned with issues of computing security, privacy, accessibility, digital governance, intellectual property, computing law, and e-voting. Check out our brochure for more information.

† — This blog post is not an official statement of USACM. However, USACM did issue the letter in 1997 and signed the joint letter earlier this year, as cited, so those two documents are official.


Posted by vint cerf
on Sunday, June 7, 2015 at 03:22 AM

Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.

Posted by Robert M.
on Sunday, June 7, 2015 at 03:56 PM

Finding Humility To Bridge the Gap When Arguing For Or Against Encryption

When looking at history, we should look also look at where secure communications did in a sense threaten our safety.  In WWII, we saw that Nazi communication through the Enigma machine was considered unbreakable.  We of course know that Alan Turing and his team were able to break German communications that historians believe helped the Allies win the war.  Governments worldwide will always worry about their adversaries having secure communications that will be unbreakable and thereby could give their enemies a strategic advantage. 

I am not advocating for government mandated backdoors or believe our fears should drive the way we want to live.  But I do believe we admit that secure communications can give one side in a war a strategic advantage.  When we do that, we can better engage with our elected officials and help educate them on the best path forward.

If we soften government control over encryption such as export controls and incentivize research in cryptography, we may produce more brilliant minds and the next “Alan Turing” that may just break the next “unbreakable code” and win that future war.

I suggest to those that have the voice in academia and industry could better demonstrate how investment in education and research in cryptography will not only help protect our civil liberties but also help produce great minds that can help the government break secure communications when it really matters.

A bit of humility may help when approaching this issue and could help our elected officials focus on long-term investment in education and research rather than look for the quick way out such as restrictive legislation.

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