"We are simply asking for information that we seek in response to a lawful order in a readable format," Hess responded, while also repeating that the Bureau supports strong encryption. "But how that actually happens should be the decision of the provider." When pressed again, Hess said that it would be okay for the FBI not to have a key to decrypt data, if the provider "can get us that information by maintaining the key themselves." The problem, according to numerous technologist and encryption experts, is that you cannot design a secure encryption system that would allow for something like that. Because if someone has a key, or a backdoor to access supposedly encrypted data, criminals or malicious hackers can get their hands on that too. During the hearing, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) asked whether anyone among the witnesses believed you could build a technically secure backdoor with a "golden key"—a term that's been used by some to describe a potential solution in the past— and encouraged them to raise their hand if they did. No one, including the FBI's Hess, as well as Daniel Conley, the Suffolk County District Attorney in Massachusetts, who denounced that mobile phones are "the tools of terrorists" and that encryption will help perverts and terrorists, raised their hand. Technologists and privacy advocates quickly decried the FBI's lack of technical details when requesting a solution to what the bureau calls the "going dark" problem, a scenario where unbreakable encryption is so pervasive that agents don't have access to relevant data during investigations.
"We are simply asking for information that we seek in response to a lawful order in a readable format."
Matt Blaze, an associate professor in computer science at Penn and a respected cybersecurity and cryptography expert, repeated that point during the hearing, saying that there's no such thing as "security systems that can be bypassed by the good guys but that also reliably keep the bad guys out."
Pro tip for law enforcement: Next time, send a witness who can describe how to design a secure encryption backdoor.
— Christopher Soghoian (@csoghoian)April 29, 2015
"As a technologist I can't ignore a stark reality, which is simply that it can't be done safely." But, in a bizarre response, Conley complained about Blaze's and other technologists' attitude, invoking the moon race. "Jeez I hate to hear talk like 'that cannot be done.'" he said. "Think about if Jack Kennedy said 'we can't go to the moon. That cannot be done.' He said something different, we're gonna get there in the next decade." Unsurprisingly, technologists mocked Conley's weird metaphor.
"As a technologist I can't ignore a stark reality, which is simply that it can't be done safely."
Even the members of the committee seemed strongly opposed to the idea of weakening encryption to help law enforcement agents get their hands on certain information. Rep. Ted Lieu (D- Calif.), who described himself as a recovering computer scientist major, said that "creating a pathway for decryption only for good guys is technologically stupid."