Encryption expert warns of risks of introducing backdoors

One of the world’s most senior internet security professionals, who works with Governments and law enforcement bodies around the world has joined the ongoing debate on access to encrypted communications, urging Governments to work with tech companies and warning about the future risks of damaging encryption technology now.

Raj Samani is the Chief Scientist and a fellow of McAfee, one of the world’s most recognised online security companies, and he was addressing the McAfee MPOWER cybersecurity summit in Las Vegas.

His comments which were addressed primarily at the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, but could equally have been aimed at UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd or any of the many political figures who have argued for encryption backdoors, were unequivocal.

He shot down the notion that tech companies can just pop in a code and then magically access encrypted data. “The way that the majority of these types of devices are architected means that you can’t take your phone into a Genius Bar or wherever and say, ‘Hey, can you put the master key into my phone and put in a secret code’ and all of a sudden, they are into the phone,” he explained.

Despite speaking to a tech audience, it is clear that Samani is one of the many in the tech community that is trying hard to explain to politicians, who by their own admission do not understand encryption, that it is not the straightforward black and white issue they seem to think it is.

Australia’s legislative plans shot down

Commenting on legislative plans in Australia which, if passed, would require firms to help Australian authorities access encrypted communications, Samani said it was vital that the Government properly “engage and consult with the firms that this will impact.”

He compared what the Australian Government was trying to legislate for with a technological equivalent of the master key airport security can use to open locked suitcases, but warned that such a master code, if it were possible, would have much more wide-reaching consequences.

The existence of master code to access encrypted communications would “compromise the integrity and the security of the devices we need,” he explained. “And to me, in my opinion, we have to live in a world where we have absolute trust in those”

A voice of authority

Samani is uniquely qualified to comment on this issue and politicians on all sides of the debate should pay heed to his views given his background.

He has worked with law enforcement bodies around the world on internet crime cases and is a special advisor to the European Cybercrime Centre in The Hague. He knowledge has been recognised with various awards including membership of the Infosecurity Europe Hall of Fame, Peter Szor award, and Intel Achievement Award.

His view is that law enforcement bodies are already getting great results in internet crime cases by working closely with tech companies. These “public-private partnerships” as Samani describes them, have disrupted numerous international criminal enterprises and no shortage of terrorist-related activity too.

This chimes with the comments of other experts around the world, including voices within the big tech companies like WhatsApp, which have been drawn into this debate. They argue that they already share a significant amount of data with Governments and law enforcement agencies.

The danger of encryption backdoors

Forcing them to compromise their encryption would mean this information was lost as criminals and terrorists would simply move to other encrypted communication channels which were less cooperative. As much as Governments might like to, they will never be able to uninvent encryption. In that reality, the best situation is to cooperate with those that provide it rather than attack them.

“My view is that we need to work and collaborate with the public sector to create the safer environment. And a lot of what we do is with partnerships with [law-enforcement] agencies across the world. But that’s done without sacrificing and compromising the integrity of the devices that we rely upon in our everyday life.”

No-one understands this issue better than Raj Samani. So perhaps, Malcolm Turnbull, Amber Rudd, and others, who have steadfastly ignored the advice of many other encryption experts up to this point, will actually pay heed to one who is viewed as being, not only amongst the best in his field but on their side of the argument too.

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