What encryption allows
Many fields, as well as numerous individual companies, rely on encryption to retain internal and customer privacy. Doctors and lawyers use encryption to maintain client privacy and prevent sensitive data from being published. And while the government has clearly run up against some problems, broadly speaking they support encryption. Government-backed encryption systems have been developed to protect communication
with human rights advocates and dissidents facing persecution.
Ultimately what encryption allows for is an important measure of privacy and security, aiming to keep hackers – or just unwanted eyes – away from our files. Email encryption protects our mail from being read during transmission and file encryption protects financial documents, medical records, and internal government reports. But as we’re learning – with every leak and hacker attack – encryption protects our valued information, except for when it fails. Weaknesses in the wall
Weaknesses in the encryption system began early. When we first began to encrypt documents in the 1990s, the NSA developed a tool
called the Clipper chip that could break through encrypted files. It would still protect files at a basic level – your average computer user wouldn’t be able to access them, but the government would have access if necessary. Still, the agency assured everyone this didn’t mean encryption was weakened. The Clipper chip simply offered an emergency outlet, just in case.
The Clipper chip’s weaknesses were quickly revealed, however and hackers have only grown more advanced. In fact, even as most would assume that the government has access to the highest levels of encryption today, researchers believe that we will see yet another major government breach in 2016
. This is the clearest indicator that most encryption practices are failing users.
Government encryption, however, is clearly not the be all and end all of encryption as we’ve seen through the FBI’s inability to unlock encrypted iPhones. Some forms of encryption, then, are at least beyond the ability of the FBI's computer scientists – though likely not the abilities of hackers. And furthermore, the legal struggle between the FBI and Apple has raised certain concerns about the government, ethics, and encryption. Is it ethical for the FBI to try to encrypt technology they’ve been legally denied access to?
Ultimately, a third party was able to unencrypt the phone
at the centre of this case, but who that third party was and what their methods were remains a mystery. Did the FBI turn to hackers who would otherwise be targeted as lawbreakers under the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act
? This, and other questions, cloud the situation, and it’s likely that similar cases will arise in the near future. Depending on the outcomes, the value of encryption may end up in question.
Encryption remains an uncertain safety standard in a world driven by cybercrime and hacktivism, among other digital vigilantism, and no wise person can stand firmly on the idea that encryption is sure to protect us.
Instead, we must watch the evolution of digital privacy laws and act mindfully and cautiously to protect ourselves from security breaches.