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Tech Talk

No backdoor access for Congress

12/9/2015

If you’re a fan of James Bond, you’ve probably noticed the last two films have relied heavily on the magic of computer hacking. Apparently “Q,” James Bond’s gadget guru, can do more than hide lasers in watch wristbands — he’s also a cyber security terrorist. In the film “Skyfall,” Q undercuts all of James Bond’s value, saying his hacking skills are magnitudes of order more lethal than 007’s spy talents. While not nearly as exciting as hanging from a helicopter or firing a rocket launcher, Q is right: One nefarious hacker has the potential to cripple a business, and potentially, a nation. So with our lives becoming more and more digitally integrated every day, why would the government want to make it easier for hackers to gain access?Finger to Screen

Practically everyone owns a smartphone, and the truth is these devices are actually computers — i.e., hackable. The National Security Agency (NSA), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and every other intelligence agency in the world works around the clock to hack the smartphones of terrorists and military leaders. The problem is smartphone encryption has become nearly impenetrable in recent years, and the U.S. government hates it.

For nearly a decade, the federal government has been hounding Silicon Valley’s tech elite to create a “backdoor” for today’s modern smartphone. The basic concept is if federal investigators can’t find their way into a device via warrants, then hackers could break in through a software, firmware or hardware portal specifically designed for law enforcement and counterterrorism. The backdoor drumbeat has only gotten louder in Congress since the November terrorist acts in Paris, where the intelligence community feels it might have prevented the attacks with backdoor-acquired information. There’s just one minor bugaboo with enabling a tech backdoor: If good guys can hack in through it, so can the villains.

Cyber warfare is no joke. While the world’s mightiest militaries play chess with airstrikes, ground troops and veiled threats, federally endowed hacking platoons spend their days digitally assaulting foreign governments and businesses for tactical intelligence and trade secrets. This past year, Chinese hackers have been accused of multiple U.S. data breaches, including at DropBox, pharmaceutical firms and the federal Office of Personnel Management. While the U.S. and China have come to a public hacking ceasefire, it seems private sector hackers aren’t abiding by the digital armistice and have continued their clandestine activities.

So, with terrorism and foreign counterterrorism efforts ever present, what could possibly keep American tech firms from opening the backdoor to allied cyber forces? Well, let’s pretend you’re a smartphone shopper in the market for a new device, and you’re looking at two potential purchases: On the left is one of 100 Android models that seem to fit everything you’re looking for, and on the left is the shiny new iPhone you’ve been wanting to try out. But instead of leaping for the iPhone, you remember something in the news about Apple working with the federal government to allow backdoor access to the next iteration of iPhone. Well, it doesn’t take long for that customer to rule out the iPhone and go with the privacy certified Android alternative.

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Even though a backdoor might do worlds of good for counter-terrorism efforts, it will completely hollow out customer confidence. It’s the same reason Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others refused to work with the NSA during the post-Edward Snowden era revelation of phone and email hacking.

So as long as our elected officials can stomp their feet over wanting tech backdoors, the tech firms will dig their heels in deeper against it. Sorry, Congress, it looks like the front door will have to do. CV

Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.

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