THE BLOG
12/31/2015 12:50 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2016

Governments Should Resolve Not To Weaken Encryption In The New Year

Kheng ho Toh via Getty Images

After the tragic attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, governments around the world are examining how to minimize the risk of similar tragedies. Political, intelligence and law enforcement leaders should be commended for their efforts to promote security. But it is imperative that these measures do not undermine our security and safety online and strip self-defense tools that are more needed than ever.

Lawmakers and presidential candidates, citing concerns about strong encryption, have called for expanded government access to devices and Internet services to prevent and investigate attacks. Some lawmakers want mandates requiring companies to take extraordinary steps to enable government access to secure digital systems and devices -- rather than imposing a particular technical system on all providers.

While leaving the problem to Silicon Valley innovators seems like an agreeable compromise, in practice the difficult tradeoffs haven't changed over the last twenty years. Companies would have to either use incomplete (flawed) encryption in their services at the provider end, or engineer digital encryption systems with a key shared in part with the government or held in escrow for its use. These approaches would create more problems than they would solve.

Deploying weakened forms of encryption in online services and consumer devices is shortsighted and would play directly into the hands of those who would do us harm.

As technical experts have made clear time and again over the past two decades, using weakened encryption for government access would significantly weaken security. Digital devices and services are extremely complex, interconnected systems. Devising an additional layer of complexity at scale to permit government access will create new vulnerabilities and exacerbate existing ones. Where the weakened encryption implemented requires a key held in escrow for third-party access, that repository would immediately become a rich target for other third parties, namely hackers.

Encryption protects everything from online communications and cloud computing to financial transactions and critical infrastructure. It's like digital armor. The stronger the implementation across the Internet ecosystem, and the fewer the gaps in between, the better the aggregate security of each of the digital and physical systems connected.

Given the growing links between online services, users' devices, and the systems of communications and critical infrastructure providers, a designed weakness in one part of the ecosystem -- say online communications or smartphones -- would only serve as a pathway for hackers, identity thieves, or terrorists to attack one of the other fundamental systems. The aggregate economic costs of hacks and data breaches are already at record levels. Smart security policy should not introduce further security risks to digital and physical systems.

But these aren't the only dangers. Economic security would also be jeopardized. The United States leads the world in digital innovation -- the digital services and goods developed by our tech industry have powered recent economic growth. But the success of digitally-enabled industry is fundamentally reliant on the trust of Internet users worldwide. That trust has been damaged in recent years, with serious economic consequences. Requiring the U.S. tech industry to deploy weakened encryption would further erode trust and put U.S. industries at an even greater competitive disadvantage abroad.

Even if we accepted the likely harms to our digital, physical, and economic security that would result from compromised encryption for government access, most bad actors would not be hindered. Terrorists and sophisticated criminals already do not favor U.S. providers for their secure communications and devices. They tend to use devices and apps from countries where our laws do not reach. Those intent on doing us harm will simply continue to use or migrate to those out-of-reach systems.

Often, following a tragedy like the one in Paris, we are asked to sacrifice some individual privacy for national security benefits. Many current proposals pose great risks to privacy and constitutional protections, but before we even address such concerns, we need to understand that weakening encryption for the domestic Internet actually sacrifices vital physical, digital, and economic security for little or no actual benefit to terrorism protection.