Cryptographic luminaries mainly align with Apple

An RSA Conference panel including Diffie and Hellman theorized potential consequences in Apple vs. FBI case.
Written by John Fontana, Contributor

A panel of cryptographic luminaries at the RSA Conference mostly backed Apple's refusal to aid in an FBI investigation and theorized that this privacy debate is the lead-in to more complex discussions about man, machines and how the world is controlled.

The panel, one part of a three-and-a-half hour opening program, included a collection of the finest cryptographers who gave near unanimous support for privacy and software unencumbered by backdoors or other surveillance techniques.

Adi Shamir, co-inventor of the RSA algorithm along with other notable achievements, was the lone FBI supporter on the five member-panel of crypto VIPs that included Whitfield Diffie, Martin Hellman, Ron Rivest and Moxie Marlinspike.

"In my opinion, Apple goofed," said Shamir. He said the case has nothing to do with placing a backdoor on the phone. "It is the case of a single phone, it can set precedence. But if you look at the issue, it falls on the side of helping the FBI in this case." Shamir said Apple picked the wrong test case to tell the FBI they are technically unable to help. "My advice is they should have complied this time and waited for a better test case."

Shamir's peers did not see it the same way.

"First, we should acknowledge that Apple makes products that serve their customers," said Marlinspike, who was formally head of cybersecurity at Twitter and founded Open Whisper Systems. He said law enforcement should be difficult, and said it should be possible for people to break the law. Legal changes occur in that scenario, he said. "How did we know we wanted to legalize marijuana if no one had consumed it before," he asked. "The FBI seems to be saying we should consider their surveillance is for our social good, but I don't think that is true," said Marlinspike.

Diffie said the Apple/FBI saga is part of a much larger issue. "We are moving into digital media, but there is another aspect to this, which is that in some sense essentially all societies in the past and over the long run were democratic," he said. "But we are moving into an era of confrontation between people and machines. The interaction of people and machines is a major issue of this era. Who controls the machines is going to be who controls the world."

Hellman, who famously collaborated with Diffie and invented public key cryptography in 1976, said, "we need to have a discussion to figure out what is right for the country rather than what is right for this agency or that company." He said he would sign a brief in support of Apple. "There will be requests from many governments, and people will feel Apple would have to build a universal backdoor, and if that were to get out then we are in trouble."

Ron Rivest, one of the inventors of the RSA algorithm and a current professor at MIT, said, "these systems we have are so fragile that trying to have extra keys and way in is asking for all kinds of trouble." He said strong security supports the good of the country, but that people have rights to their private conversations. "The law has many other means at their disposal. Can anyone be compelled to do anything? You are opening up a can or worms here."

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