President Trump's federal budget would embolden the FBI's ability to combat "cyber threats" confronting the United States, including the misuse of encryption to attack the nation's critical infrastructure and federal networks. These concerns held by law enforcement and the intelligence community are legitimate. But many U.S. government officials agree that strong encryption remains essential to the United States' national security.
In March 2017, President Trump announced a federal budget proposal that would grant $1.5 billion to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for the purposes of protecting the United States' critical infrastructure and federal networks against digital attacks. If adopted, this proposed funding would necessitate deep cuts to other entities in the U.S. government, including the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency. Government agencies would then use the monies to address matters of digital security.
Among other recommendations, the budget blueprint explains the FBI would benefit from enhanced capabilities in its fight against "cyber threats" that leverage encryption:
"The FBI would devote resources toward its world-class cadre of special agents and intelligence analysts, as well as invest $61 million more to fight terrorism and combat foreign intelligence and cyber threats and address public safety and national security risks that result from malicious actors' use of encrypted products and services."
On numerous occasions, the Federal Bureau of Investigations has discussed the challenges that encryption poses to its investigations. In July 2015, FBI Director James Comey testified before the Senate’s judiciary and intelligence committees and said that the Islamic State's use of end-to-end encryption prevents federal agents from disrupting terrorist plots. He claims this forces the FBI to engage communications providers about the possibility of inserting encryption backdoors into their technologies, such as what happened between the FBI and Apple in the spring of 2016.
Without a doubt, encryption makes the work of law enforcement and the intelligence community more difficult. But by no means do those challenges mean encryption is a bad thing. The truth is a little more complicated than that.
In its year-end report for 2016, the Encryption Working Group representing both the House Judiciary Committee and House Energy and Commerce Committee explained that encryption is a national interest for the United States. Members of the national security community told the Working Group that strong encryption contributes to the United States' national defense capabilities and its ability to secure vital assets. At the same time, civil society organizations highlighted encryption's ability to uphold users' privacy and human rights.
For these reasons and others, the Encryption Working Group made its demands of Congress clear. As it writes in its report (PDF):
"Congress should not weaken this vital technology because doing so works against the national interest. However, it should not ignore and must address the legitimate concerns of the law enforcement and intelligence communities."
The Encryption Working Group recommends that law enforcement and the technology sector cooperate on tackling issues associated with strong encryption. Towards this end, were Congress to adopt Trump's budget proposal verbatim, it would behoove the FBI to invest some of its $61 million budget increase in forging partnerships with private industry. Sustained cooperation, not disputes over ad hoc requests for backdoor access, is the only way the United States can reap the benefits of encryption while defending against those who would seek to abuse it.
If you were legally required to surrender your keys and certificates, could you locate them?