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Executive Editor

Law enforcement backdoors open corporate networks to criminals

Jul 07, 20153 mins

Legal access to secure communications will result in more risk for corporate secrets

A panel of distinguished cryptographers says letting law enforcement have access to encrypted communications means more vulnerabilities for criminals to exploit and less secure corporate networks.

Issued just a day before law enforcement officials are scheduled to ask Congress for backdoors into secure communications, the report says that even legitimate access to results in weaknesses that will eventually be discovered and used by actors with no legal need to decrypt it.

“We can’t solve law enforcement’s problem by creating vulnerabilities that are going to be exploited,” says Daniel Weitzner, principal research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and head of the 14-member committee. “It would make enterprise infrastructure less secure.”

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The report brings together an elite group that came together in 1997 to oppose a similar law enforcement push for access to encrypted communications that would have been enabled by the Clipper chip – encryption hardware with a backdoor for law enforcement.

FBI Director James Comey says his agency needs this type of access now in order to thwart criminals and terrorists in particular. But the cryptographers say it would undermine security.

Daniel Weitzner, principal research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory

“What we’re saying is if you build in special access for law enforcement…it would also be building in vulnerabilities to infrastructure being used in the commercial sector,” Weitzner says. “Front door, backdoor, it doesn’t really matter what kind of door it is.”

He says the group that wrote the report doesn’t question the legitimacy of law enforcement’s desire for access. “We have no problem with legitimate surveillance,” he says, “but as the government considers how to meet this need have an eye on seeing the risks as well.”

Law enforcement needs to be more specific about what it needs and what it’s proposing as a solution so it can be discussed publicly. “We need to hear more about the problem and what [the FBI] proposes as a solution. If it is to build in a front door, backdoor or golden key it will dramatically increase vulnerabilities,” Weitzner says.

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The group issuing the report is a who’s who of cryptographers including public-key encryption pioneer Whitfield Diffie, Ronald Rivest who co-authored the RSA crypto system, encrypted key exchange inventor Steven Bellovin, and the creator of the Benaloh crypto system Josh Benaloh. It also includes privacy experts Ross Anderson of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, Harold Abelson, a director of Creative Commons and the Center for Democracy and Technology, and Bruce Schneier,  a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

The FBI’s Comey has been pushing for legal access to all encrypted communications for a while. He has tangled with Apple and Google, in particular their stances on encrypting their smartphones. He’s gone as far as to say that such encryption allows people “to place themselves beyond the law.”

Comey has characterized encryption as forcing criminal investigations to “go dark” because law enforcement officials are faced with suspected criminal communications that they cannot tap into.

The flip side of that is that perfectly legal communications containing sensitive information such as corporate intellectual property becomes less secure. “If you want access to all infrastructure then you introduce vulnerabilities for all infrastructure,” Weitzner says.