A Flip On Encryption From Former Fed

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on current and future worldwide threats.

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

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Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on current and future worldwide threats.

Mike McConnell, once NSA director and DNI, thinks law enforcement needs to adapt to widespread encryption rather than look for a special key.

In the on­go­ing duel over en­cryp­tion between law en­force­ment and the tech­no­logy in­dustry, the gov­ern­ment has re­peatedly goaded de­velopers to “try harder” to come up with a strong en­cryp­tion stand­ard that still al­lows au­thor­it­ies ac­cess to com­mu­nic­a­tions, a bal­ance that most ex­perts main­tain is im­possible to strike.

But a former top in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial wants to flip the script.

Mi­chael Mc­Con­nell, who served in high-rank­ing in­tel­li­gence po­s­i­tions un­der two Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ents, says it’s up to law en­force­ment to “ad­apt to ubi­quit­ous en­cryp­tion.”

“Don’t get in the way of pro­gress,” Mc­Con­nell said Thursday at a pan­el dur­ing an en­cryp­tion sum­mit hos­ted by The Wash­ing­ton Post. “Don’t get in the way of in­nov­a­tion and cre­ativ­ity, be­cause this is go­ing to hap­pen. Some­body’s go­ing to provide this en­cryp­tion.”

Mc­Con­nell’s po­s­i­tion is a com­plete de­par­ture from the per­spect­ive he rep­res­en­ted in gov­ern­ment, a shift he has pub­licly ac­know­ledged. When he ran the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency in the 1990s, Mc­Con­nell was a vo­cal sup­port­er of the Clip­per Chip, a device de­veloped by the NSA that al­lowed the gov­ern­ment to de­crypt elec­tron­ic com­mu­nic­a­tions.

The de­bate over the Clip­per Chip was a pre­curs­or to the cur­rent dis­cus­sion about en­cryp­tion, but Mc­Con­nell, now a seni­or ex­ec­ut­ive ad­visor at Booz Al­len Hamilton, finds him­self on the oth­er side of the table for this one.

He ar­gued Thursday that the be­ne­fits of law en­force­ment ac­cess to com­mu­nic­a­tions are far out­weighed by the po­ten­tial eco­nom­ic harm of weak en­cryp­tion, which could make wide­spread com­mer­cial es­pi­on­age pos­sible.

“If law en­force­ment starts to change the way they think about this, I think there are many, many ways to carry out the mis­sion, giv­en that you are faced with a situ­ation where tech­no­logy is not go­ing to be re­versed,” he said. “There is a cry­ing need for this kind of data pro­tec­tion, in mo­tion and at rest, to pro­tect the eco­nom­ic in­terests of this coun­try.”

While Booz Al­len Hamilton does of­fer tech­no­logy con­sult­ing ser­vices, the com­pany does not ap­pear to have pub­licly come out in fa­vor of strong en­cryp­tion prac­tices.

Mc­Con­nell ori­gin­ally made his case for en­cryp­tion in a Wash­ing­ton Post op-ed pub­lished this sum­mer, which he co-wrote with former Home­land Se­cur­ity Sec­ret­ary Mi­chael Cher­toff and former Deputy De­fense Sec­ret­ary Wil­li­am Lynn.

On Thursday, his ar­gu­ments were countered by Kir­an Raj, seni­or coun­sel to the deputy at­tor­ney gen­er­al, who has ap­peared in pub­lic re­peatedly to speak in sup­port of the Justice De­part­ment’s push for a key to locked-away com­mu­nic­a­tion.

As FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey has ar­gued, Raj said Thursday that it’s on U.S. busi­nesses to come up with a solu­tion to the en­cryp­tion ques­tion. “We have the most in­nov­at­ive tech com­pan­ies in the world. If someone’s go­ing to solve the prob­lem, it’s go­ing to be the folks in the in­dustry.”

Mc­Con­nell agreed that a se­cure sys­tem that al­lowed for law en­force­ment ac­cess would be ideal, but ques­tioned its feas­ib­il­ity. Asked to choose between en­cryp­tion and ac­cess, he said: “If I have to trade one for the oth­er I would take ubi­quit­ous en­cryp­tion of data in mo­tion and at rest. But I would prefer to have both.”

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