Even A "Manhattan Project" Won't Make Foolproof, Terrorist-Proof Encryption Possible

Bad metaphors make for worse policy

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Todd Lopez, U.S. Army, via Wikimedia Commons

By design, encryption keeps secrets secret. Almost all the time, this is great, but it’s vexing for politicians trying to campaign on their anti-terrorism credentials.

In Saturday's Democratic debate, frontrunner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for a "Manhattan-like project" to get around encryption technology when moderator Martha Raddatz asked Clinton whether she would force Apple CEO Tim Cook to give law enforcement a key to encrypted communications on Apple devices.

This was Clinton’s response:

I would not want to go to that point. I would hope that, given the extraordinary capacities that the tech community has and the legitimate needs and questions from law enforcement, that there could be a Manhattan-like project, something that would bring the government and the tech communities together to see they're not adversaries, they've got to be partners. It doesn't do anybody any good if terrorists can move toward encrypted communication that no law enforcement agency can break into before or after. There must be some way. I don't know enough about the technology,Martha, to be able to say what it is, but I have a lot of confidence in our tech experts. And maybe the back door is the wrong door, and I understand what Apple and others are saying about that. But I also understand, when a law enforcement official charged with the responsibility of preventing attacks -- to go back to our early questions, how do we prevent attacks -- well, if we can't know what someone is planning, we are going to have to rely on the neighbor or, you know, the member of the mosque or the teacher, somebody to see something.

The Manhattan Project was one of the more remarkable works of human science and engineering, and also one of the deadliest. Undertaken during World War II, and created in part at the urging of Albert Einstein, the genius physicists working within the Manhattan Project theorized, designed, and created in the space of just a few years the first-ever working atomic weapons. Used against Japan in August of 1945, the first two atomic weapons killed at least 200,000 people, mostly civilians and likely killed more. Given that less than 3,500 Americans have died of terrorism this century (that includes the death toll from 9/11 attacks), a Manhattan Project is a wholly inappropriate metaphor.

"Maybe the back door is the wrong door."

Here's how TechDirt explains the problem:

The real concern is that backdooring encryption means that everyone is more exposed to everyone, including malicious hackers. You create a backdoor and you open up the ability for malicious hackers from everywhere else to get in. The issue, again, is that what they're really asking for is "Can you make a technology where only 'good' people can use it safely, and everyone else cannot?" And the answer to that question is to point out how absolutely astoundingly stupid the question is. Because there's no way to objectively determine who is "good" and who is "bad," and thus the only possible response is to create code that really thinks everyone is "bad." And to do that, you have to completely undermine basic security practices.

The radical change casually proposed by Clinton leaves the digital world less safe. No amount of high-powered physics can avoid the essential reality. Building a backdoor into an encrypted system -- even if the backdoor is intended to be very closely guarded -- is like adding a thermal exhaust port to a Death Star: it promises that a determined attacker can always get in, and renders the whole thing useless.