The US National Security Agency (NSA) appears to be increasingly concerned about the growing adoption of encryption and its ability to thwart the agency’s surveillance efforts.
Now, after months of debate with tech firms about government access to encrypted data on smartphones and other devices, the NSA has proposed a solution which it hopes will strike a balance between its desire to know everything about everyone and the average law-abiding citizen’s right to privacy.
According to The Washington Post, that solution – put forward by NSA director Michael S. Rogers – lies in a multi-part encryption key, created by various tech companies, which could unlock any device.
Speaking at Princeton University recently, Rogers said the key could be broken into several parts, meaning no one agency or company would be able to use it without the co-operation of the others:
I don't want a back door. I want a front door. And I want the front door to have multiple locks. Big locks.
With the highly contentious Section 215 of the Patriot Act – legislation that has allowed mass eavesdropping from the security services – due to sunset on 1 June 2015, privacy rights groups and concerned members of the public have long been voicing their concerns about bulk data collection.
Add to that the fact that firms such as Apple, Google and Microsoft recently sent a letter to President Barack Obama which demanded an end to data collection, and you can probably see why the NSA is exploring more palatable alternatives.
The debate about encryption and government access comes about as tech companies continue to make customer privacy a key selling point for their products and services.
Companies like Apple – which recently took the decision to enable device encryption by default and made key promises to its customers concerning their privacy – are giving the NSA a real headache as the agency argues the need for government access to data to aid in the battle against crime and terrorism.
Edward Snowden, for his part, continues to lament the level of access the US government still has. At a secret meeting at this year’s South by Southwest festival he urged tech companies to foil surveillance efforts through the development of better privacy tools.
But Rogers firmly believes that his proposal for a ‘front door’ is both sound and justified, allowing for access as and when required, while keeping data safe from would-be hackers and other forms of attack.
Of course, his view is not universally shared – Donna Dodson, chief cybersecurity adviser at the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technologies pointed out that a master key still presents a risk, even if it is broken into parts held by different parties:
The basic question is, is it possible to design a completely secure system? There’s no way to do this where you don’t have unintentional vulnerabilities.
Privacy advocates and industry officials alike are not convinced by Rogers’ proposal either. Marc Zwillinger, a former Justice Department official now working as an attorney for tech companies on encryption-related matters, told the Post that law enforcement should not have the undeniable right to access every means of communication between two parties. He added:
I don’t think our Founding Fathers would think so, either.
The fact that the Constitution offers a process for obtaining a search warrant where there is probable cause is not support for the notion that it should be illegal to make an unbreakable lock. These are two distinct concepts.
Image of lock licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)
8 comments on “The NSA wants a multi-part encryption key for ‘front door’ access to your data”
>”Rogers said the key could be broken into several parts, meaning no one agency or company would be able to use it without the co-operation of the others:”
That’s straight from the director of the organisation that has spent the past who-knows-how-many years stealing every key it can get its hands on. So yeah, they won’t rest until they have all the parts.
Ah – what nostalgia!
To quote Propellerheads and Dame Shirley Bassey – “History Repeating” – (listen on YouTube).
Remember the USA’s “Clipper Chip” with its “SkipJack” cipher and “key escrow”. The new US Democrat party presidential candidate claimant should.
BUT – what happened? NOTHING!
So now we add “n of m” secret sharing schemes, I suppose but the industry has to all agree to go with it and that is far from assured, as we have leaned from the past.
Clipper just sort of, well, vanished. Sank without too much of a trace, to use a nautical metaphor. With hindsight, its failure was not really anything “hacktivisitic” or ethically driven. It just sank – more of a market flop, it seems, than a triumph of privacy advocacy.
But it seems that there is much more political will to make escrowed crypto work these days, while at the same time there is broader support for the views of hacktivists and privacy advocates.
So the fight may be more interesting this time!
Last time, in the Clipper era, it was like a fascinating criminal court case, but where the prosecution kind of gave up and withdrew the charges after a while and everyone lost interest and went home…it never got all the way to the closing speeches and a proper verdict 🙂
“I don’t want a back door. I want a front door.” … the distinction being that we accept this forced entry based on trust in the authority of the key holder? The cynical phrasing is tearing me up.
Truly, a ‘front door’ would be a system that a client would 1. set up with their discretion and 2. know it is being accessed.
Even domestically, US intelligence agencies have spent their implied trust by systematically back-dooring everyone so aggressively. The measured framing of asking for a ‘front door’ is laughable, scary and depressing.
Problem is two-fold. First, Governments desperately want such access and in many places in the World there are no fundamental protections able to stop this on long term. Once few, particularly influential countries mandate so, slippery slope will hurt us all. Current most dangerous cutting edge is GB, they already have legislation constructed to enforce exactly this type of system and no Constitutional barriers to stop it after passing. Second, sadder one, is security research community. “White hats”. For them (current cutting edge papers and discussions) it all stops at technological merits. Technologically this indeed can be done in a safer manner than any “back door”. Your observations (1,2) are irrelevant to them. Hence, unlike encryption battles of ’80s and ’90s when researchers fought Governmental restrictions, today they are most likely to support “front door” scheme.
You want a front door? I want a booby-trap on the front door that will blow up anyone who comes in without a warrant.
There’s a good deal of debate going on around this at the RSA conference from the coverage I’m reading. Ron Rivest (the R in RSA) is quoted:
“Key escrow and front doors make plain text available to law enforcement. It’s a house of doors kind of vision. If you set it up so that the U.S. government has a door into your private data, the reality is that it won’t just be the U.S. that wants access to it. It will be UK, China, Israel… you end up with a house of many doors with many keys held by many people—and it’s just not going to work.”
To make the absurdity of a front door/back door distinction crystal clear, Adi Shamir (the S in RSA) added: “There’s no difference between a back door and a front door. It’s just that the NSA will have to take your house and turn it around.”