During his keynote address at the International Conference on Cyber Security, held at Fordham University, US Attorney General William Barr cited the dangers of criminals using encryption to mask their activities. Barr called for decryption capabilities for law enforcement agencies, an approach that former FBI director James Comey labeled a “golden key.”
Barr, according to a report by Ars Technica, stated that encryption gave criminals the ability to hide their actions from law enforcement agencies. He added that increased information security “should not come at the expense of making us more vulnerable in the real world,” something that Barr claims is occurring today.
“Service providers, device manufacturers, and application developers are developing and deploying encryption that can only be decrypted by the end-user or customer,” said Barr, “and they are refusing to provide technology that allows for lawful access by law enforcement agencies in appropriate circumstances.”
Barr said that encryption was making it difficult for law enforcement to monitor for criminal activities, creating a blind spot that effectively made information and communications from criminals “warrant proof.”
He added that encryption was “extinguishing the ability of law enforcement to obtain evidence essential to detecting and investigating crimes,” enabling “criminals to operate with impunity, hiding their activities under an impenetrable cloak of secrecy.”
Barr stated that options for lawful surveillance by the government were “going dark.”
“The net effect is to reduce the overall security of society,” Barr asserted. “I am here today to tell you that, as we use encryption to improve cybersecurity, we must ensure that we retain society’s ability to gain lawful access to data and communications when needed to respond to criminal activity.”
Barr closed the keynote address by stating that US citizens need to accept encryption backdoors as a means of ensuring security.
Not all agree with Barr’s assessment. Former National Security Agency director Gen. Michael Hayden tweeted on the matter, writing “Not really.”
Encryption has become far more prevalent over recent years as companies and individuals strive to secure their digital data, particularly after Edward Snowden provided the world with a glimpse into the government’s digital surveillance capabilities.
The proliferation of encryption was rapidly accelerated,” said Ben Wizner, Snowden’s attorney. “And the Internet is more secure today than it was in 2013. Technology companies realized that they had been operating under the wrong threat model.”
The impact of increased encryption on legal surveillance activities and investigations isn’t entirely clear, and many statistics presented by law enforcement agencies are highly disputed or were found to be inflated.