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How Government Lost the Crypto Wars (At Least for Now)

Public-key encryption has brought a drastic shift in power from the state to individuals.

Forty-two years after unbreakable encryption was first conceived, these tools are more widespread than ever before. One milestone came in 2016, when the world's largest messaging service—WhatsApp—announced it would offer default end-to-end encryption on all communications. In other words, the messages can be read only by the senders and recipients; even the platform provider can't access them.

Law enforcement and intelligence agencies are still reckoning with this new reality. For decades, they demanded that tech companies hand over private data on their users, sometimes without obtaining warrants. So companies like Apple changed their policies so individual users were the only ones holding the keys to their data.

This new era of consumer privacy led to a standoff in 2016, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) demanded access to an encrypted iPhone belonging to Sayed Farook, a deceased terrorist from San Bernardino, California. Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, had killed 14 people at a holiday office party in December 2015.

The FBI wanted Apple to write software that would weaken the iPhone's built-in security. Apple refused, saying that such flawed software would jeopardize the security of its customers, who number in the hundreds of millions. Once a back door was created, the company claimed, the FBI could use it on similar phones—and it could be leaked to hackers or foreign enemies. "It is in our view the software equivalent of cancer," Apple CEO Tim Cook told ABC News.

Plenty of consumer data is still unencrypted and can be accessed by large tech companies. From Facebook to Gmail, many online platforms give law enforcement access to their users' private conversations. But the growing use of end-to-end encryption, by Apple in particular, represents a drastic shift.

It's the latest battle in the so-called Crypto Wars, a fight between technologists and the state that's been ongoing for decades.

In 1991, then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) introduced an anti-crime bill that required providers and manufacturers of electronic communications to make it possible for the government to obtain the contents of voice, data, and other communications when authorized by law, essentially mandating that tech companies provide back doors for government snooping.

Programmer Phil Zimmerman decided to build a tool that would thwart Biden's efforts. He wrote the first attempt at an encryption program for the everyday user; he called it Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP. It scrambled data to everyone except the sender and recipient. PGP was published online, and it spread everywhere.

In the early 1990s, America was getting its first taste of the world wide web, and encryption was making law enforcement agencies nervous. They viewed PGP and similar programs as munitions. In 1993, the Justice Department launched a criminal investigation of Zimmerman on the grounds that by publishing his software he had violated the Arms Export Control Act. To demonstrate that PGP was protected under the First Amendment, Zimmerman got MIT Press to print out its source code in a book and sell it abroad.

The Justice Department eventually dropped the case against Zimmerman, and the government slowly started coming to grips with the legal and technical challenges of regulating software.

At the same time, the National Security Agency (NSA) attempted to preempt stronger domestic encryption by offering its own alternative for telecommunications devices. The Clipper Chip was an encryption tool with a built-in way for the government to gain access to private information. It was the first back door—an intentional flaw in a security system.

The NSA tried to make the Clipper Chip an industry standard by taking advantage of the government's purchasing power. But privacy advocates fought back.

"This was really the first crypto war," says Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. It was "a fight it looked like the government might win until a computer scientist named Matt Blaze discovered certain flaws in the Clipper algorithm."

The Clipper Chip died an unmourned death, and the government once again seemed resigned to the new era of encrypted telecommunications. There was even a compromise of sorts between telecommunications companies and law enforcement, called the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act. The trade-off was that telecommunications companies could still offer encryption but they had to preserve the ability to wiretap.

It seemed like technologists had won. But thanks to the Edward Snowden revelations, we now know that intelligence agencies weren't accepting defeat. Snowden's whistleblowing didn't just reveal massive government spying; it revealed how the NSA was targeting encryption.

The NSA corrupted a widely used software program called Dual_EC with malicious code. The program was used, mainly by big companies, to generate the long strings of numbers and letters that make up the private keys used to unlock encryption.

"Not a pure back door, not a 'push a button and decrypt it' attack, but they had what's called a short cut," says Sanchez. But use of the shortcut didn't last. Researchers who used Dual_EC quickly figured out the algorithm was compromised, and the NSA went back to the drawing board.

Intelligence agencies just couldn't beat the math worked into encryption software. As mathematical sophistication and increased speed of processors improved, so did the strength of encryption.

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  • BYODB||

    There's no proof or anything, but I wonder if those recent revelations about the flaws in Intel chips was intentional all long and/or at the behest of the government itself. It wouldn't be the first time, but it's also pretty conspiratorial.

  • Hugh Akston||

    I have to admire your high bar for personal shame. Even on a forum where nobody know who I am I would be mortified to post that kind of baseless tinfoil hat speculation.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    You're just jealois that he wears it better than you do.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    We know who you are. I'm sitting outside your Anaheim walk-up right now.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    "Unbreakable" encryption was not invented 42 years ago. Diffie hellman is not unbreakable (and is only used for key exchange due to the high overhead). There is such a thing as truly inbreakable encryption and it was invented about 100 years ago. We call it a one time pad.

  • mtrueman||

    "There is such a thing as truly inbreakable encryption and it was invented about 100 years ago. "

    Anyone who gets a look at the pad has a fair chance at decrypting the message.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Gosh, anyone who looks at the original plaintext could too! Christ you're a moron.

  • J. S. Greenfield||

    "Diffie hellman is not unbreakable (and is only used for key exchange due to the high overhead). "

    Ding, ding, ding!

    I don't even mind the characterization of Diffie-Hellman (or public-key cryptography, more generally -- as seems to be the intent) as unbreakable, since with appropriate key lengths, for practical purposes, it is (for the time being). But the notion that Diffie-Hellman was the first conception of unbreakable cryptography -- that's just plainly ridiculous. And as noted, in practice it's only used for key exchange/distribution. Symmetric/secret-key encryption is used for bulk encryption in all practical systems. Are we to supposed to believe that the use of symmetric encryption is inherently "breakable" (more so than public-key encryption)?

    Why does it seem to be so damned hard to get the most basic facts correct -- here, in the very first sentence!

  • Jerryskids||

    WhatsApp, the world's largest messaging service, announced in 2016 that it would offer encryption where the messages could only be read by the senders and recipients: Not even the FBI or WhatsApp staff could have access to them.

    Does SESTA not cover messaging services like WhatsApp? If it doesn't now it soon will, and we all know SESTA is quickly going to be expanded to cover any and all criminal activity and criminal investigations. For the children.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Is that the Sex Trafficking law you're talking about? I assume you're referring to the provision that providers are responsible for what goes on on their networks?

    It'll be interesting to see how this plays out.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    What the doubting Thomases and government spooks have blinders to is that if corporations infest crypto software with back doors or weak algorithms, either on their own or from pressure from the government, new Phil Zimemrmans will write new PGPs, and thousands of crypto experts will comb them with a fine tooth comb. It will be the same mistake as breaking up Napster was, only on a much larger scale.

  • mtrueman||

    It won't matter. Anyone sending or receiving encrypted messages will stand out and draw attention to themselves. There are lots of channels of communication we use all the time that remain unencrypted, plenty to keep the NSA busy.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Yesn there's absolutely no way to hide encrypted traffic. It's not like steganography is a real thing or anything.

  • DenverJ||

    Huh. I thought quantum computing was supposed to enable unbreakable codes, not vice versa

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    They're breakable and unbreakable at the same time.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    No, all that QKD does is ensure that the key exchange wasn't eavesdropped. It's greatly overhyped in utility.

  • Colossal Douchebag||

    Public key is just math, the one part of the process the feds can't beat. They can and will continue to go after every piece of hardware and every party to transmission, like certificate authorities.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Yes, this can't be said enough. People like to talk about unbreakable encryption, but the smart players don't bother cracking the encryption, they attack the endpoints.

    China already got into hot water for issuing "trusted certificates" for certain providers that were essentially fake. There's nothing stopping the US government from doing that now, except the awful publicity it would cause them if and when they got caught.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

  • Greg F||

    From your link:

    Gogo Inflight Internet is Intentionally Issuing Fake SSL Certificates

    How ironic that the above is on Symantec's web site considering the following.

    Symantec PKI authority comes crashing down.

    On January 19, 2017, a public posting to the mozilla.dev.security.policy newsgroup drew attention to a series of questionable website authentication certificates issued by Symantec Corporation's PKI. Symantec's PKI business, which operates a series of Certificate Authorities under various brand names, including Thawte, VeriSign, Equifax, GeoTrust, and RapidSSL, had issued numerous certificates that did not comply with the industry-developed CA/Browser Forum Baseline Requirements. During the subsequent investigation, it was revealed that Symantec had entrusted several organizations with the ability to issue certificates without the appropriate or necessary oversight, and had been aware of security deficiencies at these organizations for some time.

    Symantec ended up having to sell the PKI part of the business.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    I'd suggest reading Rainbows End by Vinge. Good story and a very plausible near future. Far more plausible than the stupidity from kurzweil.

  • cjcoats||

    "Programmer Phil Zimmerman decided to build a tool that would thwart Biden's efforts... Zimmerman got MIT Press to print out its source code in a book and sell it abroad."

    Not just a book: it was/is even published on tee-shirts; see http://www.cypherspace.org/adam/shirt/

  • m.EK||

    Doesn't it still take a SUCCESSFUL AMENDMENT PROCESS (Constitutional LAW) to alter the Constitution in any manner or form? I thought it did.
    When the government decides to collect everything and then "mine" it for juicy tidbits, how is that not a violation of the 4th Amendment? If any agency, rogue or accepted does this, does that mean limited responsibility on the government? Are they not responsible for the leviathan that has taken over?

    I'm telling you, arguing points like these are a waste of time. The only answer I can see is the Oath of Office. If we hold the Oath takers to being Oath keepers, only then can we really fight this.
    If enough political hacks not only get charged and convicted of TREASON for ignoring their Oaths. If at the same time they lose ALL their estate,,, all of it, tossed back to reparations for the harm done (which is how a civil case is done. Put the victims as close to "norm" as possible, court costs, and then TORT damages as appropriately decided in the court of LAW!). That would wake up the "officials" to the Constitutional Oath that they swore or affirmed. It would also pay back a tiny fraction of the harm these "people" have done.

  • JdL||

    "Forty-two years after unbreakable encryption was first conceived..."

    The author reveals his ignorance with the very first sentence. What happened in 1976 was the introduction of public key cryptography. This is of course a real step forward, but encryption became neither more nor less "unbreakable" than it was before.

  • Joirep||

    The ability to wiretap regardless of encryption makes worrying about government intrusion sort of meaningless. Basically if they want to spy on you they can.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    I think at this point the government knowing or not knowing your secrets is moot.

    The constitution is clearly being ignored, and you can have all your assets stripped from you or you can be gunned down in the street without any due process or repercussions for the government perpetrators.

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