Michael Hayden has served as director of national intelligence as well as head of the NSA and CIA. He is now a principal at the Chertoff Group. And according to The Daily Beast’s Noah Shachtman, who moderated a panel at the Aspen Security Forum, Hayden declared in an interview, “I think I come down on the side of industry. The downsides of a front or back door outweigh the very real public safety concerns.”
Michael Leiter has doubts about mandatory “backdoors” too. A former director of the United States National Counterterrorism Center, he presently works for Leidos, a defense and homeland security contractor. Appearing on the same panel as Chertoff, he declared that “we are clearly going to a world where end-to-end encryption with temporary keys that disappear immediately after any communication occurs, that is the future. There is no way around that; we are not going to stop that. And because of that, for the technology issues, I don't think there is a long term way to preserve the US government's ability to intercept or get access to those.”
“We have to accept that the degree to which we undermine our national security by having that back door or front door, depending upon how you define it, is very real,” he added. “We have seen that because of the cyberthreat.” Policymakers can try to design backdoor access to communications, he said, “but reality is going to overtake you and it's a funny thing that when technology and law conflict, law's not going to change that technology for long, it's going to overtake it. And you have to have a law which addresses reality, and not what you hope reality will be."
The journalist Marcy Wheeler, one of the first members of the press to take note of the panel, observed that Chertoff’s answer is notable because of who he is. Through much of his career, “Chertoff has been the close colleague of FBI Director Jim Comey, the guy pushing back doors now,” she wrote. “It’s possible he’s saying this now because as a contractor he’s being paid to voice the opinions of the tech industry; as he noted, he’s working with some companies on this issue. Nevertheless, it’s not just hippies and hackers making these arguments. It’s also someone who, for most of his career, pursued and prosecuted the same kinds of people that Jim Comey is today.”
Chertoff’s paymaster isn’t the only thing that has changed.
Being in private industry exposes him to people with different values, incentives, institutional imperatives, and responsibilities than he met when he traveled in national security circles. And the rest of Chertoff’s remarks, whatever motivated them, included cogent, hard-to-refute arguments against requiring “backdoors” and weakening encryption.
First of all, he said, “you’re basically making things less secure for ordinary people.”
Second, he said, “the really bad people are going to find apps and tools that are going to allow them to encrypt everything without a back door. These apps are multiplying all the time. The idea that you’re going to be able to stop this, particularly given the global environment, I think is a pipe dream. So what would wind up happening is people who are legitimate actors will be taking somewhat less secure communications and the bad guys will still not be able to be decrypted.”