FBI Director James Comey testified to Congress today that encryption will end law enforcement’s ability to perform their job. He suggests that the FBI’s primary tool is court orders to search for information, and he makes the general assumption that data is never accessible once encrypted. To paraphrase, encryption leads to information “going dark” for the purpose of public safety. As if encryption is game over for the FBI. This reminds me of a famous quote (famous misquote actually as I don’t believe this is true) attributed to the Commissioner of U.S. Patent and Trademark office Charles Duell when he purportedly quipped, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” Comey seems like a decent guy but suggesting that the FBI requires clear text access to American’s data because the court order process is predicated on this is disingenuous. The FBI has an obligation to keep up with technology.
I stated in my previous blog on this topic that cryptography and cryptanalysis have been playing a cat and mouse game throughout world history. So let’s review that, because I believe government is obligated to defeat encryption technologically rather than by eroding America’s privacy laws. To be fair, I recognize they are currently playing catch-up. Consider that cyber crime is nearly a half trillion dollar market. Security products and services are well under $100B market. Meaning we are applying $100B to the good side and cyber criminals are making $500B. So I can sympathize with Comey. The bad guys are winning.
Understand the etymology of these terms. We began by covering up secrets. For example, Histaiaeus, in the 5th century BC, wrote his message for Miletus to revolt against the Persian King on his messenger’s shaven head. He then waited for his messenger’s hair to grow back before sending him on his way. This was before instant messaging. A similar technique was used in the latest version of Mad Max. “Steganos” is Greek for “covered” while “graphein” is the Greek term “to write”, hence steganography means “covered writing.” So steganography was the art of covering up a message. It goes without saying, one didn’t necessarily have to be a rocket scientist to be a code breaker back in the day.
The art of secrecy evolved to hiding the meaning of the message, rather than simply covering up the message itself – with the understanding the message will likely be discovered eventually. The Greek term for “hidden” is “kryptos”; hence we use the term “cryptography” which we now practice with encryption. The picture above is of a 5th century Spartan Scytale that transposed the position of letters to hide the meaning of the otherwise open message.
Technology advanced and today one does have to be a rocket scientist to be a code breaker. Bill Gates was quoted by Representative Bob Goodlatte (wonder if he owns shares in Starbucks?) in today’s Congressional Hearing as suggesting Quantum Computing will soon be powerful enough to break any encryption. I don’t know about that but point is technology does eventually catch up in this cat and mouse game. Consider the plight of Mary, Queen of Scots.
On trial for treason, her prosecutor, Sir Francis Walsingham was also England’s Spymaster. Sir Walsingham first captured Mary’s correspondance, which she hid inside the hollow bungs that sealed barrels of beer. This was steganography. But Mary was clever and further used a cypher to hide the meaning of her correspondence. Sir Walsingham engaged Thomas Phelippes to perform the requisite cryptanalysis and ultimately succeeded in proving Mary’s guilt. The rest is history. Point being, Cryptanalysis was on par with the cryptography of the time. Fast forward to WWII where the British successfully decoded the German’s Enigma with the use of early computing technology. So Bill Gates might actually know what he’s talking about.
I’m in the cyber security industry and agree with Comey that the bad guys are winning. For now. Still, I’m not willing to surrender any more rights to privacy than have already been suspended post 9-11. Technology will catch up.