The Politics of Digital Encryption
This article was originally published for The Common Forum, a student-led political forum.
In an ever digital world, especially during the times of Covid-19, data is our most valuable asset. Logically, we should protect our data with equally high esteem as we protect our other investments, property, possessions, etc.. There are, however, two bills on the congressional floor looking to take away your right to data: LAEDA and Earn It. These bills are working to take away the right to digital encryption,the process of obfuscating the contents of a file using a pseudo-random key. In an ideal scenario, only those with the key are able to view the encrypted content. However, for as long as there have been locks, there have always been lock-pickers. Imagine the government putting a ban on closing your front door, setting up a camera in your bedroom, and watching you 24/7. This is what these two bills are working to create, except with data. The Earn It Act of 2020, introduced by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), primarily aims to reduce child exploitation and the consumption of child pornography; however, aside from its more noble cause, this bill also makes it illegal to run a service utilizing end to end encryption.
(7) CYBERSECURITY PROTECTIONS DO NOT GIVE RISE TO LIABILITY.—Notwithstanding paragraph (6), a provider of an interactive computer service shall not be deemed to be in violation of section 2252 or 2252A of title 18, United States Code, for the purposes of subparagraph (A) of such paragraph (6), and shall not otherwise be subject to any charge in a criminal prosecution under State law under subparagraph (B) of such paragraph (6), or any claim in a civil action under State law under subparagraph (C) of such paragraph (6), because the provider—
“(A) utilizes full end-to-end encrypted messaging services, device encryption, or other encryption services;
“(B) does not possess the information necessary to decrypt a communication; or
“(C) fails to take an action that would otherwise undermine the ability of the provider to offer full end-to-end encrypted messaging services, device encryption, or other encryption services.”
Encryption has far more uses for good than it does for bad. End to end encryption is already utilized all the time in everyday electronics. Numerous services that we use on a day-to-day basis, such as WhatsApp and Zoom utilize encryption, but also essentially every website on the web. Modern websites utilize the HTTPS protocol, which encrypts all traffic going through them, so if you see a lock in the URL bar, or the address starts with ‘https://’, then that website has been encrypted. This is a vital security technology to protect you online. Without this encryption, it would be far easier for passwords and other sensitive data to be intercepted over the air. All these implementations of end to end encryption stand to protect us online, and do not facilitate the activities which Earn It suggests.
Encryption is a vital digital right that protects your privacy and data. While your communications may still be private to other users of the service, police, government, employers, and other entities can easily use their power to exploit the system. In addition, messages can be intercepted during transmission to be read. Encryption is also a vital part of offline privacy as well. Many people choose to encrypt the files on their mobile devices, including laptops, tablets, and phones in order to protect their privacy in case the device is stolen, or their online network is compromised. Say your bag containing your laptop is stolen. If it was unencrypted, the thief could simply remove the hard drive and plug it into a different computer to be able to read every single thing on your computer. A flaw in a piece of software that stores your passwords badly, or simply an unnoticed bug in your banking software or web browser, you could easily have your entire identity stolen. With an encrypted hard disk however, the files are entirely scrambled, and without the passcode used to encrypt them in the first place, the thief is unable to read or access anything.
LAEDA (lawful access to encrypted data act) takes what EARN IT introduces to a new level. LAEDA, sponsored by Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Tom Cotton (R-AR), and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), proposes backdoors to all encryption for the use of law enforcement. If it were to pass, the citizens of the United States would instantly create a police state in which every communication can be monitored by the government, and no communication can legally be private. Some say that LAEDA was introduced simply to make EARN IT seem more reasonable, however, neither bill has made it far through congress, especially because of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic which has hit in the midst of all of this occurring.
(8) If not addressed, criminal anonymity actuated by end-to-end encryption technology will continue to pose a serious risk to the public.
(i) develop a master database to track investigations in the United States in which a law enforcement agency secured the legal authority to access digital data but otherwise cannot gain access to that data in an intelligible format due to encryption;
It is a well known fact among security experts that any backdoor is a backdoor to everyone. Anybody with enough skills, patience, or money, can take advantage of this system. End to end encryption does not pose a risk to the public, in fact it does the exact opposite. Bills like EARN IT and LAEDA, exist for the sole purpose of increasing government and police power.
On October 11, the Office of the Attorney General released an international statement calling for the addition of backdoors to all digital data.
Enable law enforcement access to content in a readable and usable format where an authorisation is lawfully issued, is necessary and proportionate, and is subject to strong safeguards and oversight; and
Not only is the Republican party trying to destroy encryption within the US, but also outside of our borders. The United States is manipulating its power into globally taking away your fundamental digital freedoms.