Our personal security is our national security

Strong encryption is good for our personal security. There are very few people who would disagree with that statement. We want to protect our personal information from cyber criminals of all sorts. It’s why we demand secure channels of communication from our device manufacturers and software developers alike. But I’ll go even further and say that strong encryption is good for, and in fact vital to, our national security.  

This may seem contradictory to what people are hearing from some law enforcement officials and the FBI, especially around the order served to Apple demanding that the cellphone of a San Bernardino terrorist by unlocked by the company. The FBI insists, that for this one case, it is completely acceptable for Apple to weaken the security features of its popular iPhone. They are wrong and shortsighted on this issue.  

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As a former official at the Department of Homeland Security, I dealt firsthand with the challenging issues around protecting our national security while preserving the privacy rights of our citizens. Whether we should weaken encryption standards was never one of those challenging issues because we knew they would make our country less secure. I am not the least bit surprised that two former National Security Agency directors and a former head of Homeland Security have come out in strong support of Apple’s position on this case.  

As more citizens carry personal devices on their body and more of our nation’s critical infrastructure is connected to a variety of networks, strong end-to-end encryption of all communications has become an absolute must. There are too many potential points of weakness and possible entries for malicious cyber attacks for encryption to be weak or optional. 

Dealing with immediate, real-time crimes is an incredible challenge. So is dealing with protecting national security from both immediate and future threats. I can understand why the FBI wants Apple to weaken its security standards to gain access to the data on the iPhone of the attacker. They want to bring justice to those that perpetrated this heinous act and believe information on the phone will help do just that. While the utility of the information on the phone can be questioned, we all share the desire for justice in this tragic case. What we don’t share is a willingness to sacrifice long-term national security for a possible short-term gain in one case.  

We are currently in a global arms race on encrypted technologies. Whether it is powerful foreign government agents that oppose American values or individual cyber criminals trying to gain access to citizens’ accounts for financial gains, our nation must stay ahead of them by making our encryption as strong as possible across the board. The ultimate goal is completely unbreakable encryption for the systems that operate our power plants, enable emergency communications, and yes, power our daily personal communications.

Apple, like many technology companies, recognizes that the security of their customers’ communications is not just good for business, but also plays a role in the greater good of our country. In challenging the FBI’s request, I am certain they understood the potential public backlash against their stance. Yet, as is evident by the security enhancements they add to each new version of their operating system, they are committed to the long-term security of their customers. This is something all of us should support.

America, and each and every one of its citizens, is safer with strong encryption. The sophistication and number of cyber attacks on the security of individuals, businesses, government agencies, and critical infrastructure are only increasing. Now is not the time to mandate defective products with weakened security. Now is the time to double down on creating the best, most secures systems and devices. This is not only for our personal privacy and security, but also it is essential for our national security.

O'Connor is the president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a nonprofit advocacy organization advancing democratic values in the digital age. 

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