News Brief
Legal Tools

US government intensifies its push for a ‘backdoor’ into encrypted communications

This week, U.S. Attorney General William Barr made another move in the long-running argument between the government and tech companies by reiterating the government’s belief that electronics manufacturers need to make their encryption breakable by the authorities.

“The deployment of warrant-proof encryption is already imposing huge costs on society,” Barr said according to Ars Technica.

The dispute first began in 2016, when the FBI publicly demanded that Apple unlock a phone belonging to a gunman in a 2015 terrorist attack. Tech companies maintain that they cannot create secure encryption while still allowing governments to snoop behind the curtain.

The U.S. government had previously encouraged companies to come up with technology that was both maximally secure and could be cracked by law enforcement. But in this week’s remarks, Barr may have said something new. He admitted that granting access to law enforcement would make communications less secure. But he noted that “[all] systems fall short of optimality and have some residual risk of vulnerability.”

In other words: Giving the government access to encrypted data will make communications less secure, but it’s a small price to pay for security.

Cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier told Coda that this admission may signal something important about the attorney general’s approach to this debate.

“[H]e actually made an admission that they’ve never made before,” Schneier said. “And perhaps it was accidental, but…it is a big thing.” In a blog post, Schneier wrote: “I think this is a major change in government position.”

There is some irony to this situation. The U.S. government demands a backdoor into U.S.-made communications devices, but it has also launched a campaign against Huawei because of alleged backdoors. In late 2018, FBI director Christopher Wray said that Huawei’s relationship with the Chinese government “provides [China with] the capacity to conduct undetected espionage” on Huawei users.

But if the U.S. government were to acquire a backdoor into, say, iPhones, Schneier said that would complicate the United States’ argument against Huawei.

“[Saying] ‘we won’t accept China’s backdoors’ and then we’re demanding the world accept our backdoors…that’s a hard position to have morally,” Schneier said. But he noted that, so far, the U.S. government’s push for a backdoor is just talk. “There’s no legislative push right now.”


Huawei denies that such a mandatory backdoor exists even in China and like Apple, it promises it would refuse to build such a feature into their technology. 

“If it were ever proven [that we installed a backdoor], we would lose 65 percent of our business overnight,” a Huawei spokesperson said in 2014. “That would be corporate suicide.”