U.S. Senator John McCain wants Silicon Valley to “join the war on terrorism.”
At least, that’s what he said in the headline of an OP/ED he penned for BloombergView recently.
The obvious implication here is that Washington, D.C., is fighting terrorism but the U.S. tech industry is standing in the way.
Specifically, according to Senator McCain, companies like Apple and Google are making it difficult for government agencies to fight terrorism by making end-to-end encryption “the default setting on many phones and operating systems.”
McCain spins and obfuscates as politicians do. But, ultimately, he claims that bad people are having conversations beyond the reach of the U.S. government and that this is unacceptable.
I applaud McCain’s optimism, patriotism and activism, but he’s on the wrong side of the encryption debate.
Dangerously, he’s calling for legally mandated “back doors” that would enable law enforcement and spy agencies to eavesdrop on email, text messages and other forms of online communication.
McCain trots out the old “balanced approach” idea, designed to make his proposal sound reasonable: “Americans of course need access to technology that keeps our personal and business communications private, but this must be balanced with concerns over national security.”
U.S. politicians like McCain fantasize about widespread use of encrypted communication that only U.S. government police and intelligence authorities can access.
He seems to believe this is both possible and desirable. It is neither.
It’s not possible because any backdoor can be exploited by hackers. The same mechanism built for the FBI or the National Security Agency (NSA) will likely be used by Chinese industrial espionage hackers, Eastern European hacker extortionists and even by Islamic State terrorists.
In fact, such a back door would spawn an industry to crack it. And once they inevitably do, the keys to that encryption would be made available to anyone with the money to pay for it.
But even if government-exclusive back doors were possible, they are not desirable.
McCain’s fantasy imagines that any access granted for the purpose of government eavesdropping would be both legal and constitutional. He slams encryption for blocking access even by agencies in possession of “a lawful court order backed by probable cause.”
But it’s clear that the public cannot trust the government to obey the Constitution when they operate beyond the reach of public knowledge. This much has been demonstrated by what we learned from the document leaks of former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden by the Patriot Act and most recently by the fact that Congress snuck in the Cybersecurity Information Sharing and Protection Act into law after it was clearly rejected by citizens.
Reminder: The Bill of Rights exists solely to protect citizens like you and me from government abuse. For example, the Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures.
What’s the point of constitutional protections if the government can secretly violate them at will without anybody knowing?
In the past 15 years, the U.S. government has repeatedly used fear and the threat of terrorism to make an end-run around the Bill of Rights.
McCain’s call to outlaw private and secure communication is merely the latest attempt by government officials to scare the public into giving up more privacy and rights.
Mandating encryption back doors in mainstream products disadvantages the nation. The unintended result of McCain’s proposal is that the bad guys get good security and the good guys get bad security.
In fact, the ISIS is already accelerating the dissemination of information about how to evade detection and surveillance. A recent report from the Middle East Media Research Institute that was reported on by The Hill, revealed that ISIS has formed a new organization of cyber-security experts called the Electronic Horizon Foundation. This organization is aggressively collecting and disseminating detailed information about how to prevent the United States and other governments from accessing their communications.
The bad guys will use strong encryption no matter what. The question is, will the good guys use it as well?
McCain believes that America will eavesdrop on ISIS. But his call for back doors is likely to lead to a situation where we cannot eavesdrop on ISIS because they’ll have uncrackable encryption.
Why John McCain Is Wrong About Silicon Valley’s Role in War on Terror
However, ISIS will be able to eavesdrop on America if the U.S public, businesses and many government officials are only allowed to use some kind of legalized and crackable encryption.
When privacy is outlawed, only outlaws will have privacy.
Terrorists will not use compromised encryption, so the call for encryption back doors has literally nothing to do with the “war on terrorism.”
So when McCain calls for Silicon Valley to “join the war on terrorism,” he’s simply using terrorism as a straw man. He’s really calling on Silicon Valley to join the government’s ongoing war against privacy.
It took us decades to get built-in, easy-to-use encryption. And that zero-effort nature of the encryption built into everyday consumer products like the iPhone is precisely what makes it so effective and valuable.
It affords millions of Americans some small protection from hackers, blackmailers, industrial espionage, and public exposure and humiliation. It does this every day and without any special action by users.
National security, including our security from the threat of terrorism, depends on hundreds of individual factors, from the cultivation of intelligence assets to the coordination between branches of government and more. But above all, our security is built on a foundation of three pillars:
1. Technological superiority—we need to have better technology than our enemies.
2. Financial superiority—we need to be able to afford more resources than our enemies.
3. Cultural superiority—all wars, and especially the war on terror, are wars of ideas. Winning the war on terror, as with the 20th century cold war against communism, requires that we adhere to our own values and protect the freedoms we’re fighting for.
In the United States, key freedoms are enshrined in the Bill of Rights and, more specifically for the purposes of this commentary, in the First and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution.
Silicon Valley is doing more than just about any other economic sector to promote and protect these three foundational elements of national security.
Senator McCain’s call for legally mandated back doors actually works against these foundational elements of security.
And it’s not the first time.
The U.S. government has reduced America’s technological superiority by focusing on terrorism at the expense of state-sponsored hack attacks. Specifically, systematic industrial espionage by Chinese and other state-sponsored hackers has robbed Silicon Valley blind, as well as technology developed by U.S. defense contractors. The U.S. government has completely failed its responsibility to protect the U.S. industry from this ongoing and wholesale theft of the nation’s technologies.
So while the government is using a foiled shooting in Texas as reason why all U.S. communication should be made insecure forever, the Chinese government was not prevented from copying America’s $1.3 trillion F-35 fighter jet program.
Worse, Senator McCain now threatens to take away even the minor protection of easy end-to-end encryption. (Again, a back door for the U.S. government would quickly be compromised by the Chinese government and others looking to steal America’s technology.) Pervasive, strong encryption for everyday business communication would slow down the industrial espionage to which government failures left the nation vulnerable.
The government has reduced America’s financial superiority and damaged the nation’s relationship with its oldest allies and trading partners.
Opening U.S. technology products to snooping by the U.S. government is the best way to drive away even more international customers to foreign suppliers.
And the U.S. government has reduced America’s cultural superiority by reflexively calling for unconstitutional measures, such as the Patriot Act, the abandonment of real oversight of the NSA, and the erosion of American freedom of speech and right to privacy.
So it has to be said that Silicon Valley is already supporting the foundations on which the war on terrorism will be won.
That’s why I reject Senator MaCain’s call for Silicon Valley to join the government’s war against privacy and instead call on Senator McCain and all U.S. government officials to join Silicon Valley in the war on terrorism.