Why it matters: Attorney General William Barr argued that not allowing lawful intercept of encrypted communications imposes huge costs and prevents law enforcement from doing their job. However, many security experts counter that by saying that weakening encryption undermines the security that encryption is supposed to bring.
Today, at a cybersecurity conference at Fordham University, United States Attorney General William Barr argued that strong encryption degrades the ability for law enforcement to do their jobs. He also claimed that "warrant-proof encryption is already imposing huge costs on society".
Those "costs" are apparently victims that would've been saved if only law enforcement were able to perform "lawful intercept" of communications by means of backdoor access to encryption used to secure the Internet and messaging apps. Barr added that the using encryption was tantamount to "converting the Internet and communications into a law-free zone" where criminals can roam free without the watchful eye of the police.
The AG also took aim at tech companies, accusing them of "dogmatic" posturing by refusing to build backdoors for law enforcement. Barr repeated the talking point that giving "lawful access" to encrypted data doesn't weaken the encryption itself.
"I am suggesting that it is well past time for some in the tech community to abandon the posture that a technical solution is not worth exploring and instead turn their considerable talent to developing products that will reconcile good cyber security to the imperative of public safety and national security".
This line of reasoning isn't new. In fact, both FBI Directors from the Trump and Obama Administrations have argued this. Former Director Christopher Wray argued that creating backdoors for law enforcement was simply "responsible encryption".
Apple notoriously refused to aid the FBI in 2016 after the San Bernardino shooting with CEO Tim Cook writing a customer letter explaining why Apple would not agree to unlock the shooter's iPhone 5C. Facebook also fought the US government's request to break the end-to-end encryption on its Messenger app to support a criminal investigation.
Ultimately, while most people probably understand the need for law enforcement to do their jobs, weakening encryption for law enforcement also undermines the need for encryption in the first place. Over 140 tech firms and cybersecurity experts sent a letter to the Obama Administration in the wake of the 2015 San Bernardino shooting and Paris attacks urging the President to oppose "any policy actions or measures that would undermine encryption as an available and effective tool."
The push and pull between tech firms and governments over encryption will continue to rage on. While popular messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal and anonymizing tools like the Tor network can be used for nefarious purposes, many people have simultaneously used those tools to thwart government censorship or to just simply maintain their personal privacy.
Watch a snippet of AG Barr's remarks below: