How The Russian Crash Investigation Could Alter the War On Encryption

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, right, with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Nov. 5, 2015, at 10 Downing Street, London.

Stefan Rousseau/Pool Photo via AP

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Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, right, with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Nov. 5, 2015, at 10 Downing Street, London.

If intercepted communications prove an ISIS bomb caused the crash in Egypt, it could be just the boost surveillance state advocates need.

When U.S. intelligence officials said “intercepted communications” are a basis for the early assessment that a bomb planted by the Islamic State may have doomed a Russian passenger jet over Egypt, they also may have given a huge boost to efforts to expand government-led surveillance in the name of counterterrorism.

“I think there is a possibility that there was a bomb on board,” President Barack Obama said Thursday, lending the commander in chief’s credibility to the theory. It’s the president’s first characterization of the disaster since British Prime Minister David Cameron said it was “more likely than not” that a bomb destroyed the airliner.

Egyptian officials continue to push back on the bomb theory, yet British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said on Thursday, “Of course this will have a huge negative impact for Egypt. But with respect to [Egypt Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abouzeid,] he hasn’t seen all the information that we have.”

Consider that statement in the context of Cameron’s almost year-long crusade to strengthen the U.K. government’s surveillance capabilities and effectively shut down secure end-to-end user encryption both in the United Kingdom and beyond.

End-to-end user encryption refers to the ability of one person to share communications with another person over a digital interface, and only with that intended recipient. The message, whether an email, text or other communication, is “encrypted” by the sender and “decrypted” by the receiver using software. That means that the intermediary communications service provider, such as Apple, Google, Yahoo, or Facebook, can not decrypt the message, even under threat of incarceration or under pressure from a court. End-to-end user encryption, correctly implemented, is encryption without secret defects that allow someone to intercept those supposedly secure message. And it’s growing in popularity among users. In 2014, Apple and Google announced that iPhones and Android phones would begin to encrypt users’ data.

Just hours before the British government suspended flights over the Sinai, the U.K. government introduced a new law to weaken the type of end-to-end user encryption that would keep companies and law enforcement from being able to intercept messages. The so-called Investigatory Powers Bill also mandates that Internet companies retain detailed logs of their users’ Internet browsing activity for a year.

The bill claims to clarify a 2000 law and would require private companies to provide data and help authorities intercept communications, with a warrant, in addition to maintaining the ability to intercept and decrypt messages.

A U.K. government official explained it this way: “The Government is clear we need to find a way to work with industry as technology develops to ensure that, with clear oversight and a robust legal framework, the police and intelligence agencies can access the content of communications of terrorists and criminals in order to resolve police investigations and prevent criminal acts. That means ensuring that companies themselves can access the content of communications on their networks when presented with a warrant.’”

That matters in terms of the day’s headlines. The FBI and Cameron have accused the Islamic State of using popular encrypted-based apps to hide secret messages.

But human rights activists, journalists, and other security conscious individuals also use encryption to protect against data theft. Many computer science experts such as Bruce Schneier have argued for decades that wider access to encryption methods (without backdoors or built-in defects of the type the British government is seeking) would actually make the Internet far safer, including for people in countries like Iran and Syria who themselves are looking to reach out to U.S. intelligence agencies. Wider use of encryption also likely would mean fewer instances of identify theft, missing data, and so-called phishing attacks that use personal information.

This week’s events could conceivably alter how millions of people use very popular communications services.

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