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Former NSA Chief: I 'Would Not Support' Encryption Backdoors

Gen. Michael Hayden publicly comes out against FBI’s crypto war.
Former Director of the National Security Agency (NSA) Michael Hayden speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, on Feb. 27, 2015. (Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Michael Hayden, the former head of the CIA and the NSA, thinks the US government should stop railing against encryption and should support strong crypto rather than asking for backdoors.

The US is "better served by stronger encryption, rather than baking in weaker encryption," he said during a panel on Tuesday.

Hayden said that the US government developed certain habits that led it to favor offense rather than defense in cyberspace, but that nowadays, the world has changed, and there's a need for a change in attitude, referring to the 1990s debate over the Clipper Chip, a telephone surveillance backdoor that the US government tried to impose on telephone companies.


The US is "better served by stronger encryption, rather than baking in weaker encryption."

"American security might be best secured by toeing more in the direction of giving up the offensive advantage, in order to more secure American communications," Hayden said during a panel on cybersecurity at the Council on Foreign Relations in Manhattan.

This is surprising because current leadership in the Department of Defense and at the FBI has strongly advocated the opposite position. In July, Hayden already hinted that he didn't support the FBI's push for backdoors, but he came strongly against it on Tuesday.

When I asked Hayden about his position on the current encryption debate in an interview following the event, the former top spy told me that he "would not support [FBI] Director [James] Comey's demands for access."

"I would not support [FBI] Director [James] Comey's demands for access."

The debate, which some have billed as the new Crypto War, has been brewing in Washington, DC for more than a year, after the FBI warned that Apple's new plan to lock iPhone's by default could lead to "a very dark place."

Hayden also specifically added that he "would not" ask for a backdoor.

Hayden's clear and direct dismissal of the FBI's demands puts him at odds even with the current NSA director, Adm. Mike Rogers, who has publicly said he shared Comey's concerns, and that there needs to be "legal framework" for the US government to access data held or exchanged using online services or devices created by US tech companies.

Hayden said that losing the first Crypto War on the Clipper Chip did not stop the US government from obtaining the information it needed.

"In retrospect, we mastered the problem we created by the lack of the Clipper Chip," he said. "We were able to do a whole bunch of other things. Some of the other things were metadata, and bulk collection and so on."