NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019

William Barr is totally, completely wrong: Encryption makes us stronger — not weaker

William Barr has only been serv­ing as Don­ald Trump’s lack­ey in the Depart­ment of Jus­tice for a few months, but it seems he is already on track to con­tend for the title of worst Attor­ney Gen­er­al in the his­to­ry of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca.

In addi­tion to mali­cious­ly pub­lish­ing a dis­hon­est inter­pre­ta­tion of Robert Mueller’s final report regard­ing the Russ­ian Fed­er­a­tion’s inter­fer­ence in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion (while with­hold­ing the actu­al report), Barr has been active­ly engaged in under­min­ing the secu­ri­ty and well-being of the Unit­ed States in a myr­i­ad of ways.

For exam­ple, today in New York, Barr gave a speech in which he said com­pa­nies should be required to build back­doors into their prod­ucts so that the CIA, NSA, FBI, and police can snoop on every­one’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions on a 24/7/365 basis.

“The Depart­ment has made clear what we are seek­ing,” Barr said.

“We believe that when tech­nol­o­gy providers deploy encryp­tion in their prod­ucts, ser­vices, and plat­forms they need to main­tain an appro­pri­ate mech­a­nism for law­ful access. This means a way for gov­ern­ment enti­ties, when they have appro­pri­ate legal author­i­ty, to access data secure­ly, prompt­ly, and in an intel­li­gi­ble for­mat, whether it is stored on a device or in trans­mis­sion.”

“We are not talk­ing about pro­tect­ing the Nation’s nuclear launch codes,” Barr con­de­scend­ing­ly added. “Nor are we nec­es­sar­i­ly talk­ing about the cus­tomized encryp­tion used by large busi­ness enter­pris­es to pro­tect their oper­a­tions.”

“We are talk­ing about con­sumer prod­ucts and ser­vices such as mes­sag­ing, smart phones, e‑mail, and voice and data appli­ca­tions.”

Trans­la­tion: Real encryp­tion should only be avail­able to the gov­ern­ment itself and the large firms the gov­ern­ment relies on (like Booz Allen Hamil­ton) for its oper­a­tions. It should­n’t be avail­able to house­holds or small busi­ness­es.

Bar­r’s pre­pared remarks do not use the word “back­door”. But that is exact­ly what Barr wants: legal­ly man­dat­ed back­doors that are baked into all “con­sumer” tech.

Bar­r’s con­tention that back­doors can be secured is wrong. Com­plete­ly, total­ly wrong. What Barr is demand­ing is not pos­si­ble. There is no way to secure a back­door and restrict its use to only “autho­rized” enti­ties.

If a back­door exists, then it can be exploit­ed by bad actors, which defeats the entire pur­pose of encryp­tion. Weak encryp­tion is an oxy­moron. Strong encryp­tion — with no back­doors — is the only real encryp­tion that there is.

All of us — every­one, every­where — needs to be able to pro­tect our data with strong encryp­tion. It’s the only way we can secure our cyber per­sons in this tech­nol­o­gy-cen­tric era of cloud com­put­ing, wear­able devices, and AI.

Amer­i­ca’s adver­saries (includ­ing ter­ror­ist groups) don’t give a fig what U.S. law says. They’ll avail them­selves of the abil­i­ty to encrypt their com­mu­ni­ca­tions regard­less of whether peo­ple like Barr get the pow­er they are seek­ing.

The notion that this coun­try might make it ille­gal for Amer­i­cans to prop­er­ly safe­guard their own data is just absurd.

It is under­stand­able that peo­ple in Bar­r’s posi­tion don’t like the idea of not being able to eaves­drop on who­ev­er they want to through the use of sig­nals intel­li­gence. Amer­i­ca’s armed ser­vices and intel­li­gence agen­cies have become addict­ed to sig­nals intel­li­gence and are loathe to lose the spy­ing capa­bil­i­ties they’ve devel­oped.

Before encryp­tion start­ed becom­ing the norm for mes­sag­ing and for device secu­ri­ty, mass sur­veil­lance was easy and sim­ple. Now it’s get­ting hard­er.

That is a good thing. The right to pri­va­cy mat­ters. The right to be free and secure in one’s home mat­ters. The right to be anony­mous mat­ters.

Judg­ing by William Bar­r’s past words and deeds, he does not believe Amer­i­cans have a right to pri­va­cy or even should have a right to pri­va­cy. The Fourth Amend­ment clear­ly does­n’t mean any­thing to him.

As Ore­gon Sen­a­tor Ron Wyden not­ed today in remarks on the Sen­ate floor: “It is now pub­lic record that William Barr, when he was attor­ney gen­er­al in the 1990s, approved a mas­sive, ille­gal sur­veil­lance pro­gram. The Inspec­tor Gen­er­al of the Depart­ment of Jus­tice revealed this March that William Barr gave the OK to a bulk phone records drag­net at the DEA that ran for more than twen­ty years.”

“The Inspec­tor Gen­er­al found that Barr nev­er even looked to see whether the DEA bulk sur­veil­lance pro­gram was legal,” Wyden con­tin­ued.

“The IG found this ‘trou­bling’ because of the dis­con­nect between what the law says and how it was secret­ly being inter­pret­ed and used. The DEA pro­gram that William Barr approved relied on sub­poe­na author­i­ty that requires that the records being col­lect­ed are ‘rel­e­vant or mate­r­i­al’ to an inves­ti­ga­tion”

“But Barr didn’t both­er to con­sid­er whether all those phone records col­lect­ed in bulk were con­sis­tent with the law. He just went ahead and approved it.”

“The argu­ment that the gov­ern­ment needs to weak­en encryp­tion has always been based on the promise that the gov­ern­ment will nev­er use this back­door with­out a court-ordered war­rant,” Wyden added. “But Barr, in his own words and actions, has demon­strat­ed repeat­ed­ly that, when it comes to sur­veil­lance, the laws don’t mat­ter, the courts don’t mat­ter and even the Con­sti­tu­tion doesn’t mat­ter. The only thing that mat­ters is what­ev­er he and the pres­i­dent feel like doing.”

I’ve spent close to a decade help­ing clients become safer online by encrypt­ing their data and their users’ data. I have been heart­ened to see strong encryp­tion become the default in more and more sit­u­a­tions… from Apple and Google mak­ing whole device encryp­tion the default for iOS and Android to Let’s Encrypt and web hosts like Site­Ground mak­ing secure cer­tifi­cates free and easy to obtain.

William Barr wants to under­mine all of the progress we have made in safe­guard­ing every­one’s data by man­dat­ing back­doors in every­thing so that peo­ple like him can sign off on mas­sive war­rant­less sur­veil­lance pro­grams that vac­u­um up peo­ple’s data and store it (most like­ly inse­cure­ly) with­out their knowl­edge or con­sent.

Secu­ri­ty pro­fes­sion­als know that what Barr is demand­ing is uncon­scionable and dis­as­trous. We need to make sure that every­one else under­stands that, too.

Like Matt Blaze said: “For the record, data secu­ri­ty is crit­i­cal for our econ­o­my and nation­al secu­ri­ty. And it’s most­ly hang­ing by a thread, which is why data breach­es hap­pen with dev­as­tat­ing reg­u­lar­i­ty. Encryp­tion is one of the few secu­ri­ty tech­niques that most­ly works. We can’t afford to mess it up.”

He’s right. Con­gress, the courts, state gov­ern­ments, and the Amer­i­can peo­ple must stand up and say NO to William Barr and spy­mas­ters who want unlim­it­ed snoop­ing pow­ers. Encryp­tion should not even be up for debate.

Indi­vid­u­als and busi­ness­es need encryp­tion to stay safe online, peri­od. It’s not nego­tiable. It’s a neces­si­ty. A basic neces­si­ty. In fact, it ought to be rec­og­nized as part of the right to pri­va­cy in our found­ing doc­u­ments, just like free­dom of speech and free­dom of the press and free­dom of reli­gion are.

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One Comment

  1. Barr is just clue­less.

    # by Stepahnie Nerli :: August 9th, 2019 at 1:08 PM