Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, with so much of our daily and professional life being reliant on online connectivity, internet privacy and security are more crucial now than ever. A great deal of internet privacy currently relies on the implementation of unadulterated end-to-end encryption, a system that ensures only the sender and receiver have the capability to view the data they send.
New legislation proposed in the Senate moves to break down the security of this important means of privacy by requiring backdoors to be created at the request of a government warrant. But this proposed change would effectively break down the most important means of internet protection consumers have by opening the floodgates to massive government overreach and online crime.
End-to-end encryption is considered the gold standard of internet security. This form of encryption is a system of communication where only the involved users can read the data by allowing it to stay scrambled in transit and only be decrypted by the recipient. It prevents potential eavesdroppers, including Internet providers, government agencies, or malicious third-parties from accessing the information required to decrypt the data.
For example, when an individual user sends a message on WhatsApp, that data is encrypted as soon as it is sent. Only the intended recipient who possesses the matching key to unscramble the data can read it. This is a system that provides users with total privacy and security from any prying eyes or malicious third-parties and is crucial to maintaining a secure and private online communication.
Critics, however, fault this level of online privacy on national security grounds. Senate Bill 4051, the Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act, aims to strengthen national security by ending the use of “warrant-proof” encrypted technology by terrorists and other malicious actors to conceal criminal behavior. This bill would compel tech companies to build “lawful access” mechanisms, otherwise known as backdoors, into their encrypted systems. Backdoors would allow the manufacturer to access all the data on any device it creates by creating a universal key to their encryption software.
Companies including Apple, WhatsApp and Zoom currently cannot turn over decrypted data to law enforcement even if they desire to because, by design, they cannot access any encrypted data on their servers. The proposed bill would apply to both stored data, such as any information on a locked phone or in the cloud, as well as data in motion, such as text messages. This is an extremely broad scope of information that would become vulnerable if backdoors are created, inevitably destroying the security created by encryption software.
This debate was central to the 2015 dispute between the FBI and Apple which resulted in the FBI utilizing a third-party to hack the phone of the San Bernardino Shooter instead of forcing Apple to compromise the security of their encryption software. By solving the issue without compromising the encryption software in question, the FBI showed that there are alternative means to seeking justice without risking the privacy and security of every single other user of the encryption software they are seeking to break.
If this bill were to pass, it would have extremely detrimental effects for businesses and consumers alike. It would force companies such as Facebook and Apple to re-design all of their products so that they could be decrypted at the request of a judge. This would drive up costs for both companies and their consumers alike. It would also destroy the degree of privacy and security most individuals have while working or communicating online.
Although the desire to find a way to protect Americans from threats being carried out using secure internet communication is honorable, a different way must be found in order to do so. The privacy of all Americans, whose lives both professionally and personally are more reliant on the internet than ever, cannot be sacrificed for the sake of expediting the prosecution of a few.
Patrick Kennedy is an intern at the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit www.TheAmericanConsumer.Org or follow us on Twitter @ConsumerPal.