Encryption, a security measure that makes data impossible to read without a secure code or password, has become an increasingly contentious subject for government agencies and private companies. While the likes of Apple, Android, and other technology companies maintain it is vital, the federal government has forcefully resisted. On Thursday, however, NSA Director Mike Rogers expressed his support for the security feature, drawing a clear line in the sand between federal intelligence and law enforcement.
On Thursday, Rogers told the Atlantic Council think tank, “encryption is foundational to the future.” Though surveillance officials don’t often champion privacy, Rogers emphasized the importance of encryption and the need to incorporate it into security practices.
“Concerns about privacy have never been higher. Trying to get all those things right, to realize that — it isn’t about one or the other,” he said. Though he maintained that privacy should not be the dominant concern, he also rejected the belief that “security is the imperative and that ought to drive everything,” adding, “We’ve got to meet these two imperatives. We’ve got some challenging times ahead of us, folks.”
Rogers cited the recent Office of Personnel Management hack of over 20 million users as a reason to increase encryption rather than scale it back. “What you saw at OPM, you’re going to see a whole lot more of,” he said, referring to the massive hack that compromised the personal data about 20 million people who obtained background checks.
Rogers’ comments, while forward-thinking, signify an about face in his stance on encryption. In February 2015, he said he “shares [FBI] Director [James] Comey’s concern” about cell phone companies’ decision to add encryption features to their products. Comey has been one loudest critics of encryption.
However, Rogers’ comments on Thursday now directly conflict with Comey’s stated position. The FBI director has publicly chastised encryption, as well as the companies that provide it. In 2014, he claimed Apple’s then-new encryption feature could lead the world to “a very dark place.” At a Department of Justice hearing in November, Comey testified that “Increasingly, the shadow that is ‘going dark’ is falling across more and more of our work.” Though he claimed, “We support encryption,” he insisted “we have a problem that encryption is crashing into public safety and we have to figure out, as people who care about both, to resolve it. So, I think the conversation’s in a healthier place.”
At the same hearing, Comey and Attorney General Loretta Lynch declined to comment on whether they had proof the Paris attackers used encryption. Even so, Comey recently lobbied for tech companies to do away with end-to-end encryption.
However, his crusade has fallen on unsympathetic ears, both from the private companies he seeks to control — and from the NSA. Prior to Rogers’ statements in support of encryption Thursday, former NSA chief Michael Hayden said, “I disagree with Jim Comey. I actually think end-to-end encryption is good for America.”
Still another former NSA chair has criticized calls for backdoor access to information. In October, Mike McConnell told a panel at an encryption summit that the United States is “better served by stronger encryption, rather than baking in weaker encryption.” Former Department of Homeland Security chief, Michael Chertoff, has also spoken out against government being able to bypass encryption.
Regardless of these individual defenses of encryption, the Intercept explained why these statements may be irrelevant:
“Left unsaid is the fact that the FBI and NSA have the ability to circumvent encryption and get to the content too — by hacking. Hacking allows law enforcement to plant malicious code on someone’s computer in order to gain access to the photos, messages, and text before they were ever encrypted in the first place, and after they’ve been decrypted. The NSA has an entire team of advanced hackers, possibly as many as 600, camped out at Fort Meade.”
Rogers statements, of course, are not a full-fledged endorsement of privacy, nor can the NSA be expected to make it a priority. Even so, his new stance denotes a growing awareness within the government that Americans are not comfortable with the State’s grip on their data.
“So spending time arguing about ‘hey, encryption is bad and we ought to do away with it’ … that’s a waste of time to me,” Rogers said Thursday. “So what we’ve got to ask ourselves is, with that foundation, what’s the best way for us to deal with it? And how do we meet those very legitimate concerns from multiple perspectives?”