The Myth of Consumer-Grade Security
The Department of Justice wants access to encrypted consumer devices but promises not to infiltrate business products or affect critical infrastructure. Yet that’s not possible, because there is no longer any difference between those categories of devices. Consumer devices are critical infrastructure. They affect national security. And it would be foolish to weaken them, even at the request of law enforcement.
In his keynote address at the International Conference on Cybersecurity, Attorney General William Barr argued that companies should weaken encryption systems to gain access to consumer devices for criminal investigations. Barr repeated a common fallacy about a difference between military-grade encryption and consumer encryption: “After all, we are not talking about protecting the nation’s nuclear launch codes. Nor are we necessarily talking about the customized encryption used by large business enterprises to protect their operations. We are talking about consumer products and services such as messaging, smart phones, e-mail, and voice and data applications.”
The thing is, that distinction between military and consumer products largely doesn’t exist. All of those “consumer products” Barr wants access to are used by government officials — heads of state, legislators, judges, military commanders and everyone else — worldwide. They’re used by election officials, police at all levels, nuclear power plant operators, CEOs and human rights activists. They’re critical to national security as well as personal security.
This wasn’t true during much of the Cold War. Before the Internet revolution, military-grade electronics were different from consumer-grade. Military contracts drove innovation in many areas, and those sectors got the cool new stuff first. That started to change in the 1980s, when consumer electronics started to become the place where innovation happened. The military responded by creating a category of military hardware called COTS: commercial off-the-shelf technology. More consumer products became approved for military applications. Today, pretty much everything that doesn’t have to be hardened for battle is COTS and is the exact same product purchased by consumers. And a lot of battle-hardened technologies are the same computer hardware and software products as the commercial items, but in sturdier packaging.