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RSA Conference 2016: An opportunity to take a stand

This is our own fault.

That was my first thought when I read the news last week that U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym had ordered Apple to assist the FBI in bypassing the security measures on a locked iPhone that belonged to one of the deceased San Bernardino shooters.

And when I say “our own fault,” I mean the technology industry, and specifically the information security sector. Because too many people were asleep at the wheel while all the encryption backdoor talk and “going dark” nonsense was being throw about on Capitol Hill and the campaign trails. And now the encryption debate has not only been taken to a higher level, but it’s also been pushed in a perilous direction for the tech industry.

Most security experts seem to agree that forcing Apple to write a custom software tool that will bypass the iPhone passcode lock and/or disable the auto-wipe feature for failed login attempts is a bad idea, if for no other reason than that such a tool could fall into the wrong hands and undermine the security of every iOS device in world (to say nothing of the potential abuses of even the most well-meaning law enforcement agents). But now experts and tech vendors are scrambling to communicate those concerns (and many others about Judge Pym’s order) and are effectively playing catch up to the government’s campaign to undermine strong encryption, which has been rolling in recent months.

While I don’t think any amount of pro-encryption pushback from the tech community was going to prevent Judge Pym from issuing this order, such efforts would have at least set the stage for strong opposition against government-mandated backdoors and sent a message to lawmakers and politicians. Remember, this is the same community and industry that effectively shut the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in 2012 following large-scale Internet blackout protests. The ability to influence public policy was there; we just didn’t use it.

And we missed or outright disregarded the numerous warning signs that this was coming. While the Obama Administration and FBI Director James Comey said they would not be seeking legislative remedies to the “going dark” problem, Comey made numerous speeches (four in the month of October alone) before Congress and the public about the dangers of encryption (while pro-encryption testimony from tech experts has largely been absent). Meanwhile, politicians and government officials were doing everything they could to blame tragedies like the Paris terrorist attack on encrypted communications while publicly stating their opposition to strong encryption.

I’m not sure why the tech community was so complacent about this. But during a dinner with media members back in December, RSA President Amit Yoran spent the better part of an hour discussing the issues around encryption and “going dark,” and he said something very telling at the time. Just a few days earlier, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) had said she would lead an effort (after yet another instance of Congressional testimony on encryption from Comey) to “pierce” encryption and compel technology manufacturers to decrypt any and all data at the request of law enforcement.

“This is quite possibly one of the most absurd public policy proposals in recent decades. It just shows a complete lack of understanding as to how technology works,” Yoran said. “I can’t imagine anyone [in the private sector] is going to support that.”

Fine, I said — that’s the private sector. But I argued that if you step back from the tech industry, you’d be surprised at how much public support there is to break encryption and give law enforcement access to all data. A recent poll about the Apple court order supports that argument.

To use an infosec analogy, the industry saw an impending threat and incorrectly assessed the risk before it was too late.

And that brings us to RSA Conference 2016. The world’s largest information security event begins next week, with arguably the most important tech policy issue of our time looming over it: the government’s intent to force technology companies to break their own products and fundamentally undermine security. We can go in one of two directions at RSA Conference. The leading infosec voices and tech leaders can continue to offer tepid support for Apple and try to shrug off the government’s anti-encryption efforts, or they can finally and collectively take a stand and start working to reverse the tide of public opinion on encryption, or at the very least educate the public on the matter.

I’m not optimistic that the industry will move in the latter direction at RSA Conference next week. I think most companies have been secretly content to have Apple, the world’s largest and most popular technology company, take the lead on this issue and allow them to avoid the potential bad press. And I’m not sure how much has changed in recent days.

But I do know we can’t afford to let Tim Cook stand out on an island alone for this fight.