Would you allow government agents to hold a key to your house, your alarm code, and access every letter you’ve written? Americans are used to controlling access to their private property, but last week the FBI called for a new law forcing device makers to give the FBI a master key that unlocks all of our devices.
To protect the online ecosystem and improve trust in transactions, the online industry has been working to secure sites and create end-to-end encryption. Google and Apple announced new encryption mechanisms on their devices while enabling only users to unlock their phones. This safeguard for your devices has the FBI worried they won’t get the access they want.
But why stop at smartphones? The FBI could just as well demand that every device manufacturer build in backdoor access for the government. Imagine GM being forced to give backdoor access to vehicle On-Star so the FBI can follow your movements. If you are cringing at this increased government surveillance, you are not alone. This push by the FBI goes against the grain of public opinion and creates a dangerous new vulnerability.
Following Google and Apple efforts to increase device encryption, FBI Director Comey said, “the pendulum on privacy issues has swung too far against the government.” But the American public feels differently about the balance between security and privacy. A recent Morning Consult poll asked an unusually straightforward and fair question:
As you may know, Apple and Google recently announced new features that make it more difficult for law enforcement officials and courts to access data from individuals smartphones. Do you support or oppose this announcement?
An overwhelming 69% of Americans supported Google and Apple’s cellphone encryption efforts. If the device manufacturers are recognizing our choices, then our Congress and law enforcement should too.
Still, the poll reveals that a minority of Americans may be okay with the FBI having this master key. But what happens if a hacker group steals a copy of the key? Or China and Russia demand that Google and Apple give them a master key too? What happens if an FBI agent leaves a laptop containing the key on the metro? These aren’t theatrical concerns. There are examples of bad actors exploiting backdoors built for law enforcement.
In a post-Snowden environment, does the FBI really think Congress will give them this master key? It’s a quixotic adventure. But the adventure may benefit law enforcement by distracting the public and Congress from the long awaited revisions to the Electronic Communication Privacy Act (ECPA). Despite this distracting tangent, we’re not going to forget about ECPA. When we resolve the FBI’s challenge, we’ll be back at work ensuring privacy in the digital era.
Regardless of motivation, codifying an open door into our personal phones would leave Americans vulnerable to exploitation by foreign governments and organized cybercrime. With proper encryption enabled, law-abiding U.S. citizens can protect their digital communications from cyber criminals who could do untold damage to our personal lives by unlocking our private data. Congress should close the door on the FBI’s quest for mandated access to our connected devices.
Szabo is policy counsel for NetChoice.