Why Outlawing Encryption Is Wrong

Putting data encryption solely into the hands of government employees won't prevent bad things from happening -- and it might encourage wrongdoing.

the ability of citizens and businesses to secure their data in such a way that meets the approval of credible global security experts. That means no back doors.

Slippery slope
As more and more of our life goes digital, those of us who are skilled at translating manual processes into automated ones understand what back-door, automated access to our digital lives would look like.

Your photos will be instantly accessible. Jennifer Lawrence recently had firsthand experience with the risks that all Americans will have: Hackers were able to access (and then distribute) her private photos, created for her boyfriend and placed on Apple's iCloud, because of poor security.

Your love notes, similarly so. Your "private" journal, where you write ugly thoughts that nobody else should ever read -- also accessible.

Where does it end? The answer is that it doesn't. And just as law enforcement doesn't have back-door, automated access to your personal life today, it shouldn't have back-door, automated access to your business life, either.

Criminals favored
Thankfully, open-source encryption software without back doors has existed for a long time. If we outlaw data encryption and replace it with something that has a back door, we basically declare that law-abiding citizens won't have privacy, but criminals and other malcontents will.

The FBI's Comey says unchecked encryption could lead us to a place in which murderers, child abusers, and other criminals roam free. So are we to believe that murderers and child abusers won't use freely available open-source encryption software to cover their tracks if it's against the law to use strong encryption? Please. The only thing that outlawing data encryption will do is take it out of the hands of law-abiding citizens.

I'm sympathetic to the notion that law enforcement officials need a range of tools to catch the bad guys. And they continue to add new tools: DNA analysis, better systems to search fingerprints and perform forensics, predictive intelligence software, geographic information systems, log correlation, metadata… the list goes on.

Adding access to all US-based encrypted data is tantamount to enabling physical searches without warrants. Proponents will say that law enforcement will use due process, but that's not a given. People notice when a police officer walks into their house and reads their journal. It's a lot harder to notice an officer using a back door for nefarious purposes.

There's no reason to assume that law enforcement officials will be less effective simply because they must stick to tools legally at their disposal. And following Comey's call to outlaw encryption will lead to a police state that most law enforcement officials won't be comfortable with, once they realize the true impact on society.

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Editor's Choice
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer
Carrie Pallardy, Contributing Reporter
Shane Snider, Senior Writer, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author