Barr Demands Tech Firms Create Encryption Backdoors Regardless Of Consequences

The DOJ is renewing its push to mandate weakened encryption protocols, saying we must accept the security risks and ignoring the economic impacts of such a directive.
Attorney General William P. Barr addresses the 276th graduating class of the National Academy on June 7, 2019 (FBI)

Attorney General William P. Barr addresses the 276th graduating class of the National Academy on June 7, 2019 (FBI)

Imagine that when you buy a security system or a lock, every company from which you could purchase one would be required to send a skeleton key or access code to law enforcement so an agent investigating a crime could get in your house on demand. Now imagine what happens if a code like this leaks, someone posts a picture of one such skeleton key, or even worse, an agent with serious money problems sells either, or both, on the dark web. You may as well leave all your doors unlocked at night because every security device you have is now utterly useless.

Yet, this is exactly what Attorney General William Barr is demanding from tech companies while blithely dismissing the consequences of what he’s asking them to do. Instead, ignoring what the experts have been saying on the subject for decades, he’s accusing mathematicians and coders of “dogmatic posturing,” seemingly in the belief that if he scowls his graying jowls hard enough, the laws of mathematics will rearrange themselves and bend to his whims — just like the laws barring foreign interference in American elections he blithely ignores.

Knowing that he may not be able to just prod the nerds into nerding harder, Barr also gave us his backup plan for managing the risks of open backdoors to our digital communications. That plan is called “not giving a shit about them,” dismissing very real security concerns while abdicating the Department of Justice’s responsibility to at least not enable crime. The risks are worth it, he says, because we’re only talking about things like email, messaging, and voice applications, not nuclear codes. You know, the services we use every day to transmit vast amounts of important personal data ranging from medical images to financial statements.

In other words, the Attorney General doesn’t know that financial transactions are also encrypted with the same technology and doesn’t care if you get your identity stolen as a direct result of his whims being imposed on the technology critical to the modern world. Tech companies panicking about the potential doom of the $2.8 trillion global e-commerce market, and an utter collapse of online banking services and credit card transactions are “just making excuses” instead of doing the impossible in response to him snapping his fingers. He even went so far as to say that it’s “untenable” that we have devices that don’t allow backdoors.

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Of course, that’s the only way encryption can work. It’s a complex mathematical problem that involves prime numbers. Mandating that programmers learn to solve that problem in a way that produces different correct answers depending on who the person trying to solve it is, is like demanding that gravity be significantly lighter for police officers than criminals in a high-speed chase, or that radioactive fallout from a nuclear warhead only kills enemy soldiers. So not only is it tenable that encryption protocols don’t have easy and convenient backdoors, it’s just basic math in action that they can’t have them and still be considered real encryption.

What is untenable here is that we have politicians who either refuse to consult with experts or refuse to listen to them when those experts say something they don’t want to hear. This was very much the case in Australia — which passed a law demanding implementation of backdoors late last year — as well, with experts’ concerns dismissed and tech companies baffled, unsure about their future in a country which is forcing them to spy on their customers and compromise their security. At this point, as they continue to willfully disregard expert advice on everything from climate change to encryption backdoors, the only way to describe these politicians is as malicious morons hellbent on spitting in reality’s face.

Just think about this for a minute. The Attorney General of the United States was told time and time again that his demands would leave hundreds of millions of people around the world using American software for daily financial and personal transactions sitting ducks for hackers and criminals, and his response is to tell them “I don’t care, that’s not important.” (Which is ironic when you consider that his tenure is mostly dedicated to shielding President Trump from the consequences of the Mueller Report, which noted that key evidence in the case was lost thanks to the administration’s use of encrypted apps to talk about potentially illegal activities.) And no amount of logic, reason, or expertise seems to penetrate his skull.

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Experts can line up around the block to tell bureaucrats and politicians like him how to fix real problems and what is and isn’t possible, but they’re facing human equivalents of trolls in suits angrily slamming their clubs on tables when told they can’t have their way. “Fuck you! I want it!” has become the only response they seem capable of, no matter how many times they’re told that what they’re planning is dangerous and destructive, or by how many people with even the slightest clue about the subject matter. And that’s absolutely terrifying because when faced with real problems, they’re not just abdicating their responsibility to make informed decisions, they’re actively making things worse while screeching “fake news!” if you tell them they’re wrong.

In a quickly changing world filled with creative destruction, we need leaders who can adapt and look to the future, who want to truly understand how things work and why, and rely on facts and professionals to guide their decisions. That’s how we’re going to tackle the problems posed by automation, antibiotic resistance, and climate change. Instead, what we have are the functional equivalents of spoiled teenagers used to throwing temper tantrums when things don’t go their way, backed by hordes of angry voters who don’t understand why and how things are different today and don’t care to, constructing elaborate conspiracy theories to justify their rage at anyone and anything different. And until we finally vote enough of them out of office and raise the standards for our politicians, don’t expect things to get better.

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Politech // Cybersecurity / DOJ / William Barr