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History Demonstrates Strong Encryption Is Here To Stay

January 15th, 2016 | No Comments | Posted in Data Security, Security

magic-book-burning-247(Originally published on LinkedIn – January 13th, 2016)

I am a very firm believer that knowing the background and history of things provides a much better forward-looking perspective and present decision making capability. Would that this view was adopted more. If it were, the age old George Santayana quote that “those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it” would never have come into existence. The fact mankind never really seems to learn the lessons of history also seems to trap the unfolding of events in a cyclical pattern.

The Encryption Debate and History’s Lesson

Encryption, that technology that for years in the computing world has done its job quietly in the background and without much acclaim, is suddenly a topic that is all the rage due to recent and tragic world events. Lawmakers stipulate and paint a gloomy picture that without the ability to intercept and decipher encrypted communications on the part of criminals and terrorists, national security is at serious risk. Technologists on the other hand, including myself, maintain that the implementation of so-called “backdoor encryption” in effect weakens encryption for all of us with severe consequences and effects to our normal, everyday security, economy and lives. Essentially, to weaken encryption would be to cut off our noses to spite our collective economic and everyday-life faces. Lawmakers and technologists and technology companies are digging the trenches and the staunch faceoff, while mostly civil at the moment, continues.

In a recent interview for The Wall Street Journal, Max Levchin, past co-founder of PayPal and a cryptography expert, questions along with other technologists (including yours truly) whether lawmakers really understand how encryption actually works. Levchin goes on to stipulate that if we’re going to continue the national debate, let’s at least make sure lawmakers do in fact understand how encryption works technically.  And perhaps few are more qualified to step up and provide such an education than Max and other well known cryptographers in the cryptographic community.

Not only do I question whether lawmakers understand how encryption works, I also question whether they’ve really taken into account how the world works. It would be easy for anyone to say “how the world works today” but history, if we’re willing to learn from it, demonstrates the world has been working a certain way for a very long time when it comes to widespread technological innovation leveraged in conjunction with outside agenda.

Let’s take a quick lesson from history that coincidentally has ties to today’s date – January 13th – and see if history has anything to teach us concerning how the weakening of encryption would very likely play out were lawmakers to insist on their position through mandatory legislation.
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