Home / Opinion / Columns /  Tech backdoors are a terrible idea

In 2013, American journalist Glenn Greenwald travelled to Hong Kong to meet an anonymous source, who asserted he had some shocking evidence of widespread government spying. The source turned out to be an NSA contractor named Edward Snowden, and the rest is history. Greenwald wrote a bestselling book on it, No Place to Hide. I thought of this book as the UK government started a campaign against end-to-end encryption with the same name. Coincidentally, last Friday was Data Privacy Day. On 28 January 1981, the first legally-binding international treaty dealing with privacy and data protection called Convention 108 was signed, and the date is observed every year. The US House of Representatives, in a rare show of bipartisan unity, even passed a resolution in 2009 by a vote of 402–0 in recognition of Privacy Day.

Therefore, it is rather ironical that the US and UK governments led a demand that global tech companies should build “backdoors" for them to access online encrypted platforms. They also happen to be members of a world espionage alliance with a rather cool name, Five Eyes. This Anglosphere intelligence alliance—comprising the espionage wings of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and US—was formed in the Cold War years to work together against common enemies. Recently, they joined Japan and India in issuing this clarion call for backdoors. This seems rather rich coming from democratic governments that have always fostered people’s rights to individual choice and privacy.

I have written often about how global tech majors and their data-driven business models are suffering a ‘tech lash’ against some of their practices. In this case, however, they seem to be squeezed between individual users wanting more privacy and their governments asking them to surrender that right to them on demand. We use the internet for increasingly personal conversations. Patients talk to their doctors on delicate health issues, people talk to their lawyers on sensitive personal and professional matters, and spouses and partners share intimate details with each other. Many times, we might bring up matters related to our gender, our religion or even our sexual orientation. We need to be very sure that these conversations remain between us and are not vulnerable to being seen by anyone else—not even by law-enforcement officials. Thus, the comfort we derive from the privacy assured by end-to-end encryption in our messaging apps, disappearing messages, two-factor authentication and self-destructing messages is of great value. This has become even more urgent with the pandemic. I have written how covid has driven most businesses to go online and hybrid. Education is delivered over the internet, medical consultations also take place over video and messaging services and work meetings are held on Zoom or MS Teams. Privacy, if important before the pandemic, has become critical now.

The Five Eyes are not necessarily saying that every conversation or online interaction should be accessible, but that tech platforms must create technical provisions that permit such access when asked for. The same countries have also been roundly criticizing China for building backdoors to systems run by companies like Huawei, allowing the state to access all traffic over its cellular networks. A backdoor, as the name suggests, is really a key that unlocks encryption. The problem, as entrepreneur Chris Howell writes in Fortune, is that “… applications would essentially be built broken, and a flaw of that magnitude would be very difficult to hide from others. There is no way to ensure that a backdoor will be restricted to law enforcement use only. The risk would go well beyond individual privacy and impact financial transactions, global commerce, and national security, as well as jeopardize innovations in critical industries." Alex Stamos, formerly of Yahoo and Facebook, has compared that to “drilling a hole in the windshield" that would crack the structural integrity of the entire encryption shield.

Hackers tend to outsmart tech companies and governments to detect flaws and vulnerabilities in their software. A gaping backdoor will be discovered sooner rather than later by hackers and will be an invitation for non-state actors to get into your phone and data.

“To be left alone," Anthony Burgess, once said, “is the most precious thing one can ask of the modern world." Privacy, therefore, is too important for deliberate vulnerabilities to be built. We must find other ways of addressing genuine government demands. Else, we would literally have no place to hide.

Jaspreet Bindra is the chief tech whisperer at Findability Sciences, and learning AI, Ethics and Society at Cambridge University.

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