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The FBI wants cracked encryption but Congress won't go along

Aaron Pressman

The FBI is warning Congress that terrorists and other bad guys are keeping secrets using common messaging programs. Some members of Congress are calling on the app makers to deliver a back door for law enforcers to decode all the messages. And the tech industry is pushing back, saying back doors compromise security for all the good people trying to keep out hackers and thieves.

That script is playing out in Washington, D.C. right now but it's a repeat, a sequel, or at least deja vu all over again. And the end result is probably the same as well -- industry prevails and law enforcers find other ways to keep tabs on the terrorists.

Back in the early 1990s, the Clinton administration favored putting a special chip inside computers, the infamous Clipper Chip, to let law enforcers crack any code. A decade or so later, it was encrypted email programs that law enforcers feared. And now it's popular messaging apps like Facebook's (FB) WhatsApp, Kik and Wickr, not to mention the built-in messaging app on hundreds of millions of Apple (AAPL) iPhones.

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FBI counterterrorism expert Michael Steinbach was on Capitol Hill last week warning that members of the Islamic State were using social media to spread their hateful propaganda and then following up with potential new recruits on WhatsApp and other apps. Since the app makers provide true end-to-end encryption, no one can intercept and decode the messages, even the companies themselves. “We’re past going dark in certain instances. We are dark,” Steinbach told lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee.

But despite Steinbach's pleas for a government-mandated backdoor into encrypted communications apps, Congress isn't likely to take action. It's been the same complaint and the same answer for more than 20 years.

And the rationale is pretty straightfoward. Making messaging apps easier to crack for the FBI also makes them easier to crack for Chinese hackers, Russian cyberthieves and a million other bad guys, not to mention law enforcement IT specialists in countries we don't like such as North Korea or Iran.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, was among those pushing back hard against the FBI.

"Some in Washington are hoping to undermine the ability of ordinary citizens to encrypt their data,” Cook said in a speech to the privacy group EPIC's Champions of Freedom awards dinner. "Weakening encryption, or taking it away, harms good people that are using it for the right reasons. And ultimately, I believe it has a chilling effect on our First Amendment rights and undermines our country’s founding principles.”

The United Nations recently studied the issue and came to the same conclusion: Strong encryption for communications helps make the world safer.

Noted encryption expert and security blogger Bruce Schneier summed up the report's conclusion succinctly: "Government mandated backdoors, key escrow, and weak encryption are all bad. Corporations should offer their users strong encryption and anonymity."

That's the advice Congress has long heard and followed and this time won't be any different.