Internet godfather warns about plans for technology ‘back doors’

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One of the godfathers of the Internet has harsh words for federal efforts to insert “back doors” in digital security systems.  

“If you have a back door, somebody will find it, and that somebody may be a bad guy or bad guys, and they will intentionally abuse their access,” Vint Cerf, one of the co-founders of the Internet, said during remarks on Monday at the National Press Club.

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“Creating this kind of technology is super-, super-risky,” he added. “I don’t think that that’s the right answer.”

The statement from one of the most respected Internet pioneers adds to a chorus of opposition to the Obama administration’s efforts to force companies like Google and Apple to create openings in their technological defenses so the FBI and other government agencies are able to get access to people’s information.

Law enforcement officials worry that Silicon Valley’s increasing desire to adopt encryption technology — which has sped up in the wake of disclosures from former government contractor Edward Snowden — is putting data beyond the reach of police officers who have obtained a warrant. 

“If this becomes the norm, I suggest to you that homicide cases could be stalled, suspects walked free, child exploitation not discovered and prosecuted,” FBI Director James Comey warned in October

Tech companies and privacy advocates have rejected those arguments.

There is no substantive difference between a “back door” and a “front door,” they say — just secure technology and insecure technology. Building flaws into security systems to allow the FBI to access it, they add, would also make it easier for foreign spies and malicious hackers to break into people’s communications.

Still, Cerf — who now has the title of Chief Internet Evangelist at Google — said he understood law enforcement concerns about getting locked out of evidence that could be used to prevent crimes.

“The Congress is forced now to struggle with that, and they’re going to have to listen to these various arguments about protection and safety on the one hand and preservation and privacy and confidentiality on the other,” he said.

So far, lawmakers have yet to accede to the Obama administration’s call to update a 1994 wiretapping law to require tech companies to build a way for the government to access suspects’ data.

At the same time, however, Congress has repeatedly resisted efforts to explicitly ban the government from taking those steps.

Last week, a bipartisan group of legislators attempted to add an amendment prohibiting the government from forcing companies to build “back doors” into their devices to a bill reforming the National Security Agency. Though nearly every member of the House Judiciary Committee appeared to support the measure, it was rejected due to fears it would sink the underlying bill.