The Encryption Wars aren’t Over Yet

Remember the Clipper Chip? It was Al Gore’s approved encryption chip that the government wanted to insert into every digital communications device that would allow the government to eavesdrop on criminals and everyone else’s conversations with a court order. The Clipper Chip finally faded away because of lack of public adoption and the rise of other types of encryption not under government control.  We never did resolve the debate on whether the government should even be trying to do that sort of eavesdropping.


Now the government is back at it again. The Burr-Feinstein Bill ( proposes to criminalize people like me who refuse to aid the government in hacking into a phone.  Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and other countries already have similar laws.  The UK has already sentenced several people to prison for not revealing encryption keys.

Fortunately at the moment the information locked inside my own head is not accessible to the government or organized criminals.  Once I write some notes down on my tablet, though, even though my tablet is encrypted, the government can force someone else to hack my tablet.   If my own government can do it, then presumably organized crime and foreign governments can also do it.  In the aforementioned countries, they don’t even need to hack.  They will send me to jail if I fail to reveal my encryption keys.

Now as I am not a dissident nor a cybercriminal, I don’t really have much to worry from the government — but I do buy things online, and I do some banking online.  I also sometimes negotiate for contracts with the government.  In other words, I have lots of legitimate information I want to keep private, even from the government — and that’s on a good day.  Imagine the problems I would have if I were a dissident (such as a Republican GM car dealer).

If the government actually acted responsibly all of the time, perhaps we wouldn’t have much to worry about.  We live in a harsher world than that, though.  A small minority of officials are corrupt, cybercriminals, and terrorist organizations, and foreign agencies will attempt to exploit the same loopholes our government has coerced.

The U.S. position will have consequences.  Nations that value privacy and the rights of their citizens will refuse to do cyber business with U.S. companies, and the beacon of democracy will shine from some other shore.  Our economy will begin to revert to pre-internet days as people lose more trust in the net.  If the government can break into your phone, then a well-healed terrorist organization can break into a power plant operator’s phone, steal his keys, and gain control of the power plant.  That’s just one example.

Compromise is not possible.  The problem is too big.  If you make a phone with a backdoor, then all phones of the same model and version are equally vulnerable.  No one will buy a U.S. designed phone.  If you break into one, then you can break into them all.

Given anyone with a little sense of operational security is not going to put anything on a phone more sensitive than a grocery list, any claim a phone might have value in an investigation is just a fishing expedition. Even if the phone belongs to a terrorist or a child pornographer, we must treat it as a brick. Breaking into a phone renders at least that version of the phone vulnerable for everybody with the same type of phone.

Everyone should e-mail Senators Feinstein and Burr and tell them that the new encryption laws compromise our freedoms.  This is so serious that this law places us on the edge of a new Dark Age.  I mourn that the United States is the agent of this dimming of the light of liberty.

Everyone needs to get their own encryption key.  Don’t depend on the one in your phone or tablet. offers free e-mail certificates.  Of course, Comodo is generating the private key, so if the government coerces them to save the key its actually worse than having no key, but it is a start.  Just get started on your own encryption and signing.  If everyone digitally signs their e-mail then its easy to filter spam.

Graduate to the next level and generate your own PGP key, and upload it to one of the public key servers.  You’ll need to get an e-mail client that understands PGP keys but you’ll have absolute security.  I use Mynigma on a Mac.  Get it from the Apple Appstore. Get started in this and learn about PGP keys before your government makes it illegal.

I wanted this to be a coding blog, but this encryption issue is one of the most important technical issues of our entire civilization.  As a coder, you can do your utmost to

  •  Write secure code.  Know the CERT coding guidelines.
    You can’t add security after the fact.  Firewalls, WAFs and the like are just security theater.
  • Always use a secure protocol on external interfaces.
  • Sign your code.
  • Sign your email.
  • Encrypt your storage.

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