In the constant battle to keep information secure, consumers have a powerful weapon on their side: strong encryption, which locks their data into unbreakably coded form, allowing people to transfer account information, personal data and messages without fear of being hacked. It also lets them store it safely—for example, on smartphones, which are effectively becoming wallets for our most sensitive information and thoughts.
But it’s not just law-abiding citizens who take advantage of newly ubiquitous encryption. It’s also criminals, who need to communicate without being overheard. Government agencies call it the “going dark” problem: An encrypted message essentially vanishes from their view. Law enforcement wants a federally mandated “back door,” a way to lawfully break encryption and read messages.
There lies one of the biggest emerging conflicts in the cyber realm. The shorthand is the “Crypto Wars,” and it drives much of the debate over cybersecurity policy. Should tech companies and the public be encouraged to encode their information as securely as possible to guard against theft? Or should the government be given tools to snoop, even if it severely weakens the protections of encryption?
By early this fall the most recent round of the encryption debate appeared to settle in favor of consumers and technologists: The White House announced it wouldn’t back any legislative proposal forcing companies to backdoor encryption. Officials also said the government wouldn’t pressure the tech industry to insert back doors into their products.
Then came the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, which reignited the debate. Though it’s not clear that the plotters used encryption to hide their tracks, it highlighted the potential risks. “[T]echnology exists today that allows terrorists and criminals to communicate in the shadows, using encryption that makes it impossible for law enforcement or national security authorities to do everything they can to protect Americans,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asserted in the days afterward.