Egyptian technophiles got a rude awakening on December 20, 2016 when they discovered that Signal, an app that protects communications from third-party surveillance, had been blocked by the Egyptian government. The go-to app is favored by journalists and activists seeking to protect their sources from government retaliation. One week later, parent company Open Whisper Systems added new features to bypass the block, restoring access to free speech advocates throughout Egypt. Although this story has a happy ending, the incident represents a growing tension over internet security between tech leaders and governments.
Attempts to interfere with encrypted communications in the name of national security aren’t limited to the Middle East. Just last year, members of the US Senate’s Intelligence Committee championed a bill that would have compelled manufacturers to program a “backdoor” to encrypted devices. The move, introduced to enable government surveillance in cases of suspected terrorism, alarmed industry leaders, who argued that the bill would undermine consumer confidence and impose burdensome restrictions on how tech companies design and market smart devices. Security professionals joined the chorus of protests. Programming vulnerabilities into the very DNA of smart devices, they maintained, would allow cybercriminals to exploit this backdoor for profit and bragging rights.
US lawmakers soon backed off support for the bill, but many tech experts fear that further attempts to restrict security are right around the corner following Trump’s election. Styling himself as an authoritarian law and order president, Trump has called for the monitoring of Muslims and deportation of Syrian refugees, fueling fears that he will use intelligence gathering to infringe upon the civil liberties of American citizens and carry out possible human rights violations against immigrants.
Given Trump’s recent standoff with the US intelligence community over reports of Russian election hacking, fears of government intervention in the tech industry may be greatly exaggerated. Trump’s strong pro-business, anti-regulation agenda also provides a ray of hope for security professionals who wish to preserve the integrity of encryption from government interference. On the other hand, members of Congress have signaled a willingness to limit Internet access in the name of intelligence gathering and Senator Richard Burr has already vowed to reintroduce the backdoor bill during the next session of Congress.
Business leaders and technology experts who value true security above government intelligence objectives rightly argue that other means exist to monitor potential terrorist threats, as evidenced by the FBI’s legal showdown with Apple. Following a mass shooting in San Bernardino, the FBI sought to compel Apple to decrypt the shooter’s mobile phone. Apple successfully rebuffed this demand, citing its policy of maintaining the security of Apple smart devices. The case was resolved without a court ruling when the FBI found alternative methods to access the data, thereby preserving Apple’s sovereignty over its mobile security technology.
While free market advocates may argue that economic imperatives will provide a corrective check to government overreach, I’m less sanguine about the fate of encryption and other security measures in today’s political climate. If we’re going to combat the false sense of security that intelligence gathering promises, we must advocate to preserve the integrity of security technology with a proven track record of protecting personal data. As history has repeatedly demonstrated, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance not unfettered intelligence.