White House's internal encryption struggle is hypocrisy at its finest

Adding encryption for federal sites while pushing for backdoors in the private sector is slowly edging towards two-tiered internet security.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
President Barack Obama speaks at the White House Cybersecurity at Stanford University earlier this year.
(Image: via CBS News)

Ask any two people in government today their stance on encryption and you'll almost certainly get very different (and often opposing) answers.

As the White House pushes for greater encryption across federal sites to help better protect data flowing between a user's computer and the federal agency, other factions in government want to weaken the encryption used by installing "backdoors" for law enforcement uses.

Last week, the US government's chief information officer Tony Scott announced it will require every federal website to "provide service through a secure connection" by the end of 2016.

The move is undoubtedly good for all users of federal websites, which he said will "promote better privacy standards for the entire browsing public."

In the memo sent to government agency heads, Scott said encryption across the board would provide "a consistent, private browsing experience" and "position the federal government as a leader in Internet security."

That statement could probably be taken more seriously if other factions in government weren't trying to undermine the very point of encryption -- to prevent others from snooping on your activity or information -- by crusading to include backdoors for law enforcement uses.

Michael Steinbach, FBI assistant director of counterterrorism, told a House Homeland Security Committee last week that tech companies should "prevent encryption above all else."

To Steinbach's credit, he said he's not looking for a "backdoor" to be built into encryption products, but it's nevertheless sparked enough concern for a number of Silicon Valley companies to convey -- in a strongly-worded open letter to President Obama -- their opposition to "any policy actions or measures that would undermine encryption as an available and effective tool."

Security experts have stated that a "backdoor" for law enforcement purposes can and almost certainly will be used by hackers to gain access to data. Even the FBI doesn't know how to solve that problem.

It is hypocrisy at its finest when you have federal law enforcement agents calling to "prevent encryption above all else," and senior White House officials directing all federal sites to use encryption.

All it does it set the stage for a two-tiered internet security -- one where government systems are secure, but private sector uses of encryption are not. All it takes is a single weak link in the security chain to have the whole system crashing down.

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