Letter to the White House regarding cryptography.


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Back in December, Ed Felten and the White House asked for public comment on the EFF’s pro-cryptography petition. This is the letter that I had sent. I urge you to file a comment.

Dr. Felten and President Obama,

I strongly urge you to support the unfettered deployment of strong encryption without compromise or backdoors.

The fact of the matter is that people have a right to be secure in their persons, papers and effects. The UN Declaration of Human Rights, to which the United States is a signatory specifies in Article 12 that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation.” In today’s world, strong encryption is a necessary component to prevent arbitrary interference with our privacy and communications – by both state and commercial actors.

At the end of the first Cryptowar in the late 1990s, we decided that the risk of not deploying strong encryption outweighed any potential of criminal usage. All the known ways of reducing the strength of encryption algorithms have one intractable problem – math has no way to only allow the “good guys” to decrypt communication without providing similar capability to the “bad guys” – repressive nations and criminals. None of these techniques work; smarter people than I have been saying this for many years – see the work by Bruce Schneier, Matthew Green, and even you Professor Felton. As you pointed out last March on the Freedom to Tinker blog, the FREAK attack shows that we’re still dealing with the fallout of the weakened cryptography of yesteryear. [1]

Even assuming that there was some way to design a system in which the state could retain access as needed, how does one determine who has access? Is it only for the Five Eyes or NATO nations? Or will the whole world have access? Despite NSA Director Rogers’ assurance that “we can work through this”, I’m not so sure.[2]

Silent Circle’s Jon Callas pointed out a flaw in this: “We said in public we would not tolerate bad people subscribing to our service,” he said. “We also know that what that really means is really kind of squishy. Let me give you an example: Let’s take the Dalai Lama. We supply communications services to the government of Tibet. Is the government of Tibet good guys or bad guys? We made the decision the Dalai Lama is a good guy, but if you ask the Chinese, they’re bad guys.” [3]

The United States should be leading the charge for private communications, not working to prevent this. Many politicians have invoked the image of the “Shining City on a Hill” as a proxy for American Exceptionalism. We should strive to live up to this dream – and not adopt the techniques of repressive nations for a purported short term gain. The Snowden documents have shone a light into a dark place. Let’s use this as an opportunity to live up to the best images of ourselves.

Thank you, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays,

1: https://freedom-to-tinker.com/blog/felten/freak-attack-the-chickens-of-90s-crypto-restriction-come-home-to-roost/

2: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2015/02/23/heres-how-the-clash-between-the-nsa-director-and-a-senior-yahoo-executive-went-down/

3: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Passcode/2015/1217/Tech-firms-push-back-on-reactionary-politics-following-terror-attacks