la Cryptographie et l'Etat

Durée estimée: 45 minutes

Time Estimate: 45 minutes

This lesson focuses on the issue of whether the U.S. government should have legal access to the cryptographic keys that protect the information of private citizens. It is a contentious issue with adherents on both sides. As we will learn, it is not a new issue, but it is an issue that gains currency and urgency in times, such as these, when terrorists in the U.S. and around the world are using encryption to hide their plans and activities and making it more challenging for governments to combat them.

Chapter 5 of Blown to Bits (p. 161ff) describes this issus as it presented itself immediately following the September 13, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in NY. As described there, a strong effort was made by Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire to pass a law that would give the U.S. government the ability to read encrypted communications of U.S. citizens. However, the effort failed and, Blown to Bits states that "U.S. authorities have made no serious attempt to legislate control over cryptographic software since Gregg’s proposal."

While this may be strictly true in terms of legislative efforts, the U.S. government has continued efforts to gain legal access to encrypted communications. In the FBI-Apple Encryption Dispute the government has tried to get Apple to provide software that would enable the government to unlock iPhones whose data are cryptographically protected. As recently as 2016, following the December 2015 San Bernadino, CA terrorist attack that killed 14 people, the government sued Apple to get its assistance in gaining access to encrypted data on an iPhone 5C recovered from one of the terrorists.


You are encouraged to read all of Chapter 5 of Blown to Bits. It is interesting reading and it covers many of the concepts that we have learned in this lesson, including historical cryptography (pages 165-173), and public key cryptography (pages 178-187).

However, this lesson will focus primarily on the public policy issues raised by the fact that today we all have access to strong cryptography that not even the National Security Agency (NSA), as far as we know, can break. Here's the issue:

Given that the government is not able to break the encryption schemes used on our mobile devices, should Apple and Google provide software to the government that would let them decrypt encrypted information on our mobile devices?

Before discussing this issue, do the following readings:

  • Blown to Bits, Chapter 5, Pages 161-165: Why Not Regulate Encryption?
  • Blown to Bits, Chapter 5, Pages 187-192: Cryptography for Everyone and Cryptography Unsettled
  • Wikipedia: FBI-Apple Encryption Dispute.

Reading Questions

Keep these questions in mind as you do the assigned readings and provide 1 sentence answers to these questions on a page called Blown to Bits, Chapter 5 under the Homework category on your portfolio.
  1. What does it mean to say that the government would like to have a back door to the encrypted data on Apple's iPhone or Google's Android phone?
  2. What is the main argument for letting the government have a back door?
  3. What is the main argument against letting the government have a back door?
  4. Where do you come down on this issue -- i.e., what is your opinion?