The Evolution of the Encryption Debate

Encryption has been in the news a lot recently. Whether it’s Apple vs. the FBI, Microsoft suing the Justice Department, or Senators drafting bills to require mandatory encryption backdoors, encryption and cybersecurity are very hot topics lately. We’re taking a look at the key events over the past two decades that have helped shape the debate of whether encryption is a necessary tool or a hazardous roadblock.

Taking a leap back to the 20th century, 1993 was a big year for encryption technology. The Clipper chip was an encryption technology developed and promoted by the NSA, with a built-in backdoor. The Clipper chip roused considerable backlash when it was tied to illegal government surveillance and was found to hold several key vulnerabilities and flaws. By 1996 it was no longer relevant, but it would not be the last time the government tried to mandate an encryption backdoor.

Four years later in 1997, a security-related report titled “The Risks of Key Recovery, Key Escrow, and Trusted Third-Party Encryption” outlined the risks, costs, and implications of deploying systems that allow government access to encrypted keys. Several technology professionals, including Cryptographer Bruce Schneier, argued for the importance of enabling types of encryption that do not allow government interference or access. The paper garnered a considerable amount of discussion, and is still cited in today’s encryption debate.

Over a decade later in 2013, former NSA employee Edward Snowden leaked thousands of classified NSA documents to numerous journalists. The documents outlined the details of the NSA’s secret ‘Bullrun’ project, created to crack encryption codes and monitor mass communications. Snowden is currently living in Russia, a country that has granted him temporary asylum. Called a whistleblower, a hero, a traitor and much more, Edward Snowden stands by his decision to leak the NSA’s private documents, and is currently very active in the Internet privacy debate.

Today, the encryption discussion rages on with high profile cases such as Apple vs. FBI and Microsoft vs. the Department of Justice. Apple was ordered to assist in unlocking the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone, which they refused to do as it would compromise the privacy of all Apple users. The case was eventually dropped when the FBI decided to turn to a third-party source to unlock the iPhone. Microsoft is currently suing the United States Justice Department over a common practice that forces tech companies to hand over data about their customers to the government without the customer’s knowledge. Adding fuel to the fire, a recent bill introduced by Senators Richard Burr and Dianne Feinstein calls for tech companies to create mandatory backdoors into their technologies.

The encryption debate will surely continue to evolve and progress, and we hope that the continuing conversation will help spread greater awareness and education surrounding the issue. We support strong, unbreakable encryption, because it is the only way to ensure that online privacy is truly protected. We hope the U.S. government will embrace encryption as a tool to protect citizens, not harm them.