US lawmakers are yet again trying to force backdoors into tech products, allowing Uncle Sam, and anyone else with the necessary skills, to rifle through people's private encrypted information.
Two years after her effort to introduce new legislation died, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is again spearheading an effort to make it possible for law enforcement to access any information sent or stored electronically. Such a backdoor could be exploited by skilled miscreants to also read people's files and communications, crypto-experts continue to warn.
Tech lobbyists this month met the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss the proposed legislation – a sign that politicians have changed tactics since trying, and failing, to force through new laws back in 2016.
New York District Attorney and backdoor advocate Cyrus Vance (D-NY) also briefed the same committee late last month about why he felt new legislation was necessary.
Vance has been arguing for fresh anti-encryption laws for several years, even producing a 42-page report back in November 2015 that walked through how the inability to trawl through people's personal communications was making his job harder.
The meetings have also prompted cryptography experts and privacy pit bull Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) to write letters outlining their concerns, including asking for details on a FBI program to devise a technical solution.
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The US Department of Justice and the FBI have apparently been working together with three unidentified researchers to come up with a secure way to allow only law enforcement to access encrypted information. The FBI official seemingly in charge of that program – Valerie Cofield – was present at the Vance briefing, which also boasted a large number of Congressional staffers in attendance.
Earlier this year, the FBI was formally asked to disclose who the experts are that are telling the agency it is possible to create a secure Feds-only backdoor. It has so far refused to do so.
The argument by politicians and law enforcement that there is some way to create a backdoor in a strongly secure system that only the "right" people can access has been put forward so frequently for so long that it even has its own term: "magic thinking."
But the constant reminder that mathematics does not discriminate has been purposefully ignored for years on both sides of the Atlantic, with occasional speeches from senior politicians and law enforcement personnel parroting the same line that they are sure the "brilliant brains" at tech companies can come up with a solution that will work.
In January, FBI director Christopher Wray told a conference in New York that there was an ever-growing backlog of devices that it could not access. He also made the same arguments as his predecessor made repeatedly: that the FBI was only interested in the contents phones used by terrorists and criminals; that not having access to phone data was a "major public safety issue"; and that the FBI wanted to work with tech companies to come up with "thoughtfully designed" solutions.
Wray then reiterated the exact same message last month at a difference conference. "This problem impacts our investigations across the board – human trafficking, counterterrorism, counterintelligence, gangs, organized crime, child exploitation, and cyber," he said. But, of course, failed to put forward a solution, noting only that he is "open to all constructive solutions."
Meanwhile the spy agencies of the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand – the so-called "Five Eyes" – have been meeting repeatedly about how best to bypass encryption.
The last big push for new backdoor powers came when the FBI engaged in a very public legal fight with Apple over the iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Sayed Farook: a fight that the FBI ultimately backed down from.
A recent report by the Department of Justice strongly suggested that the FBI used the shooting as a pretext to get a legal precedent forcing Apple to unravel its encryption systems.
Pro-backdoor advocates have presumably been waiting for the next terrorist attack in order to relaunch efforts but their patience appears to be running thin, sparking the fresh round of meetings and new legislative proposals.
So far, actual details are limited, although according to one set of leaks, the plans are focused on hardware and operating systems, and not application software, ie: the ability to commandeer a device, by seizing it or remotely over the air, to read a target's messages, rather than break the encryption protocol of, say, Signal.
In other words, if you can break into someone's phone and pretend to be them, you don't have to bother with intercepting network traffic and forcibly decrypting the in-transit data.
And it sounds as though that's the route snoops want to go down: unlocking and accessing locked encrypted devices via a low-level software backdoor, remotely or with a physical connection. ®