Shock: Former NSA lawyer blasts encryption by tech companies

6 Nov 2014

Stewart Baker, a former lawyer for US surveillance behemoth the National Security Agency (NSA), claims encryption is bad, pitting tech companies against governments.

Following an article by new UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) head Robert Hannigan this week, where he claimed tech giants unwittingly help foster terrorism around the globe, Baker has argued that encryption cost BlackBerry its business, and that other tech giants should be wary.

Speaking at the Web Summit in Dublin, Baker, sitting alongside The Guardian’s special projects editor James Ball, claimed moves by Google and Apple and others to encrypt user data was more hostile to Western intelligence gathering than to surveillance by China or Russia.

“The state department has funded some of these tools, such as Tor, which has been used in Arab Spring revolutions or to get past the Chinese firewall, but these crypto wars are mainly being fought between the American government and American companies,” he said.

BlackBerry demise down to encryption?

Baker blamed the encryption of user data on BlackBerry’s toils, as it previously “pioneered the same business model that Google and Apple are doing now – that has not ended well for BlackBerry,” said Baker. BlackBerry’s demise has been looked at from numerous angles before, but encryption capabilities is certainly a new one.

He claimed that by encrypting user data, BlackBerry had limited its business in countries that demand oversight of communication data, such as India and the UAE, and got a bad reception in China and Russia. “They restricted their own ability to sell. We have a tendency to think that once the cyberwar is won in the US that that is the end of it – but that is the easiest war to swim.”

The thoughts of Baker, and indeed Hannigan, exist some place between irony and sour grapes, following former CIA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations of the mass fishing of user data from all over the world.

“Tech companies are picking a big public fight with the NSA because it looks good, as opposed to changing the ability of government to get data,” he said.

“The crypto wars have about as much to do with the outcome of security as the Soviet-Finnish war of 1939 had to do with the outcome of WWII.”

Cloudfare CEO Matthew Prince was also taking part in the discussion, defending tech firms’ attempts to garner trust from users, following Snowden’s activities.

“Where in the past there was a willingness to work with law enforcement, that time has gone,” he said. “I have faith in the math (of encryption). No one can monitor that – and I’m not sure we want private law enforcement taking on the law and picking which traffic is good or bad.”

Internet privacy via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic