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Moving the Encryption Policy Conversation Forward

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Pondering the role of encryption.

A working group of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace considers how strong data encryption can thwart criminals and preserve privacy, while it also complicates law enforcement investigations.

Credit: iStock

The encryption of data and communications has long been understood as essential. Strong encryption thwarts criminals and preserves privacy for myriad beneficiaries, from vulnerable populations to businesses to governments. At the same time, encryption has complicated law enforcement investigations, leading to law enforcement calls for lawful access capabilities to be required of encryption technologies.

The 2016 San Bernardino legal dispute between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Apple over access to an encrypted iPhone provided a snapshot of the contentious debate on law enforcement access to encrypted data. Law enforcement initially argued that mobile device1 encryption presented a significant barrier to its efforts to investigate a deadly counterterrorism case. Apple responded that the FBI's request that it create software to circumvent its encryption raised unacceptable implications for the security of its broader customer base. The ensuing legal showdown left little room for compromise. The dispute ended when the FBI found a way to access the device without Apple's assistance, so the courts did not resolve the issue.

Since that time, a variety of attempts have been made to move the discussion forward. A report published in February 2018 by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) enhanced the common understanding of encryption and illuminated the false dichotomy that some have drawn between "security" and "privacy."2 Security in the context of the encryption debate consists of multiple aspects including national security, public safety, cybersecurity and privacy, and security from hostile or oppressive state actors. The key is determining how to weigh competing security interests. The report therefore presents a framework of essential questions to evaluate plans for lawful access to encrypted data. In addition to the 2018 report, several computer scientists have proposed, albeit with controversy, design approaches they argue would allow access while using a variety of technical and procedural safeguards to minimize the increased risk to cybersecurity and prevent misuse. Finally, some governments have helpfully begun to acknowledge the difficulty of the problem and the downsides of requiring government access.3 A recent article by UK officials, for example, highlights the lack of silver bullet solutions and therefore the need for principled collaboration and compromise.4

At the same time, disclosures of massive data breaches and revelations about the powerful user-tracking abilities of technology companies have underscored the valuable role encryption can play in safeguarding personal data.5 Individuals around the world—from everyday citizens to at-risk groups such as journalists, activists, and marginalized groups fearing persecution—increasingly make use of encryption to protect not just against cyber crime but also unwanted disclosure and monitoring by technology platforms and other actors. The importance of encryption has grown as information technology enables the creation and storage of more and more sensitive personal information. User-controlled encryption is and will be in the future an essential component of delivering on those desires, particularly as individuals become more skeptical of U.S.-based and foreign technology companies that would otherwise have access to sensitive private information. In addition, other countries have taken steps to strengthen data protection, such as the European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).


From Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
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