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Why the Government Can't Actually Stop Terrorists From Using Encryption


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President Obama chats about encryption with Texas Tribune editor-in-chief Evan Smith at the opening keynote of the 2016 SXSW Music Festival.

Security experts say even if the U.S. government can compel Apple and other U.S. companies to give the authorities access to encrypted devices or messaging services, encryption technology would still be widely available to terrorists and criminals.

Credit: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for SXSW

Security experts say the U.S. government's efforts to force technology firms to grant them access to encrypted devices or messaging services will do little to prevent terrorists and other wrongdoers from making use of the technology. They note many encrypted products are developed by people outside the federal government's jurisdiction, either because they are based in foreign countries or are part of open source projects.

"Trying to put a mandate on encryption software is really pretty hopeless," says University of Pennsylvania professor Matt Blaze. He stresses a mandate would only impact software covered by U.S. statutes, and will not prevent people from using open source or foreign-made software, even domestically.

In 2015, 16 encrypted communications applications developed either abroad or by open source projects were cataloged by researchers at New America's Open Technology institute. Analysts say a federal crackdown on U.S. encryption tech firms may end up spurring consumers to use foreign rivals that do not comply with such constraints.

Moreover, a successful government shutdown of an open source project would not eliminate code already accessible via the Internet. Johns Hopkins University professor Matthew Green says law enforcement officials likely hope to restrict the amount of data that is automatically encrypted.

From The Washington Post
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