top of page

CH. 12 - A Holistic Approach to the Encryption Debate

Chapter Description


Encryption is a powerful tool that allows secure communication for individuals and companies; however, this technology can hinder the efforts of the intelligence community. This chapter evaluates the issues of privacy rights, intelligence collection priorities, and the security value of cryptography in both a public-private and international context.

Aaron Brantley, Ph.D.

Dr. Aaron Brantley is Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Sciences, the Army Cyber Institute and the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy. He has ten years of experience working in international development with a focus on information communications technologies (ICT) innovation and security and holds a Ph.D. in Political Science with a focus on International Relations and Comparative Politics from the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia.

Chapter Highlights

  • Encryption. Encryption is the process of converting useful information to nearly random data through a series of mathematical operations. It is the means by which to secure data against observation, theft, or corruption.

  • The Encryption Debate. The debate centers on economic, technical and security questions ranging from user privacy to the systemic security of weapons systems and global markets. The trade-offs are largely political in nature and should be examined with an appreciation of the consequences associated with a deliberate weakening of encryption on individual (citizens), economic (businesses, markets and the economy at large), and national security.

  • Government Circumvention of Encryption. As encryption has become increasingly widespread, governments have attempted to introduce ‘backdoors’ or other vulnerabilities into systems implementing encryption. Controversial in countries around the world, these efforts have yielded mixed results. Two of the more prominent examples of efforts by the U.S. government to “back door” encryption and communications are the Communications Assistance for Law (CALEA) and the Clipper Chip. Both the law and the device pose significant privacy and legal concerns but while CALEA is still active, the Clipper Chip was defunct from the start. In 1993, the White House and National Security Agency (NSA) announced the Clipper Chip as a built-in backdoor for telecommunications companies providing voice communication.

  • Courts Support CALEA. In all cases the courts have ruled in favor of the government. As technology has evolved, the coverage of CALEA remained expansive. Modern CALEA implementations effectively allow for Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), monitoring every piece of data which passes through an internet switch or router and dramatically expanding the potential content that might be intercepted.

  • Weak Encryption May Fail. Much of the encryption debate centers on the hope that backdoors and other methods of cryptographic tools will provide law enforcement and intelligence agencies with a permanent means to intercept communications between criminals, terrorists, and even potentially state actors. This hope is likely in vain, however, because there are dozens of encryption programs and devices produced globally. There is significant evidence that al’- Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorist organizations have either developed or are in the process of developing their own encrypted communications channels.

  • Consequences of Weakening Encryption. Deliberately weakening encryption opens the door for state and non-state actors to wreak havoc. It establishes a legal and policy mechanism with consequences that stretch to the very heart of our national security. Access to one device through the deliberate weakening of security is largely unnecessary in the service of larger investigative or intelligence goals where the internet and communications technologies have provided a bevy of new sources of data on threat groups and their behavior. 

***The information above is an excerpt from the Encryption Chapter.***
bottom of page