Monday, February 29, 2016

Encryption and National Security versus Liberty

In the 1990s, in what might be called the first battle of the Crypto War, the government classified encryption as a munition and restricted its export.  While opposing export in general, the government was licensing the export of implementations that were restricted to a forty bit key.  Of course, 56 bit was then the norm and, at the time, expensive for the NSA to crack.  

IBM had just purchased Lotus Notes and wanted to,export it.  In order to get a license, they negotiated an agreement under which they would encrypt 16 bits of the 56 bit message key under a public key provided by the government and attach it to the message or object.  This would mean that while the work factor anyone else would be 56 bits, for the government it would be only 40 bits.

Viewed today, 40 bit encryption is trivial; twenty years ago it was strong enough that, while the government could read any message that it wanted to, it could not read every message that it wanted to.  Said another way, it would be able to do intelligence, or even investigation, but it still would not be able to engage in mass surveillance.  

Moreover, we believed that the NSA only collected,traffic that crossed our borders, that it could not be used against citizens.  We believed that the government could keep,their private key secure. Of course, post "warrant-less surveillance," the routine breaches of government computers, including those of the NSA,and the exponential growth of computing power over a generation, this all seems very naive.  

However, I like,to think that it illustrates that it is possible to craft solutions that grant authorized access to the government, with a work factor measured in weeks to months per message, file, device or key, while presenting all,others with a cost of attack measured in decades or even centuries.   

It also illustrates the fundamental, application, and implementation-induced limitations of any such scheme, limitations that would have to be compensated for.  No such scheme will be fool-proof, nor need it be.  Like our other institutions and tools, it need only work well enough for each intended application and environment. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

US v. Apple

SUNDAY: Comey tries to downplay the dispute, arguing in his new statement that no precedent would be set if Apple would just go along.
"I hope folks will take a deep breath and stop saying the world is ending, but instead use that breath to talk to each other," he said.
"Although this case is about the innocents attacked in San Bernardino, it does highlight that we have awesome new technology that creates a serious tension between two values we all treasure — privacy and safety," he said, adding:
"We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist's passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly."
This sounds like capitulation to me. If this is now about the "victims," then the government made a serious mis-step in attacking Apple in the first place. However, the government's current position does not support a charge of "government over reach."
The issue of how far the government may go in coercing the unwilling and the un-involved to assist them in recovering evidence that they are otherwise entitled to is important and needs to be litigated. We should be glad that Apple is prepared to fight it. Perhaps not since Runnymede has the King had a more formidable adversary. However, this is not the right case to fight it on.
There is ample precedent for un-involved citizens to voluntarily assist the government. It would not be precedent setting for Apple to voluntarily assist with this one mobile in this one case. Apple should "declare victory and go home." It should do here what it can do and fight the government over reach issue when the government is more certainly guilty of it.