Over the holidays, I ran into a good friend at a party who challenged the notion that encryption backdoors were something we should be fighting to prevent. Her opinion boiled down to:
“We law abiding citizens shouldn’t care, as we’re not doing anything wrong. Catching the bad guys takes priority.”
The free and open Internet has been a catalyst for unrestricted speech and innovation worldwide and it was built and maintained by Internet infrastructure companies of all sizes, from global organizations to small innovative startups. The tools that these companies created have been used to spread ideas and democratize information in ways previously not possible. This success is in no small part to due to the innovation and flexibility of the world’s Internet infrastructure businesses, the very same businesses the U.S. government would need to impose cost prohibitive restrictions on, in order to implement global backdoors.
There are many reasons why encryption backdoors are a bad idea. One is that many of these businesses are global. Should the U.S. government head down this path, they need to understand that the tools that these global organizations build here in the United States are also part of operations that extend worldwide, on every continent and in every developed and developing society.
Asking companies to play ball with the United States on encryption backdoors would make it incredibly difficult for Internet infrastructure providers to withhold these capabilities from China, Russia, and other countries. It only takes one country to demand the use of encryption backdoors for those tools and procedures to existing globally. Those same tools used ostensibly to monitor for terrorist activity here in the United States will absolutely be used as tools for the oppression of speech and human rights online throughout the world.
The fourth amendment of the U.S. Constitution is the gold standard of due process around the world. The United States should continue that precedent by setting the global example for the digital due process. Supporting encryption backdoors at home is supporting the elimination of the Internet as a global medium that can sow the seeds of democracy and social progress in developing regions and authoritarian regimes. The tools being requested do not and will not exist in a vacuum.
Those who build the Internet’s infrastructure have many reasons to believe that encryption backdoors are a terrible idea. They will erode consumer confidence, weaken Internet security, make the U.S. digital economy less competitive and put small businesses out of business. Many of these companies also believe in the power of the communications tools they build to change lives and make the world a better place. As the gatekeepers to the technology that enables social progress, we know better than most that by institutionalizing backdoors you erode our ability to make a global difference. If the precedent we have set is undermined and encryption backdoors are institutionalized, they will be opened everywhere, and used for more than proponents intend.