Apple CEO Tim Cook appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes TV show last night.
As you can probably imagine, the topic of encryption came up, in particular the issue of what backdoors.
Bluntly put, a backdoor is a deliberate security hole – for example, an undocumented master decryption key – that is knowingly added to a software product.
Some backdoors are there as a temporary convenience, for example to speed things up during development, a bit like wedging your real-life back door open while you’re shuttling the garbage out into the yard.
But temporary software backdoors have a way of getting forgotten, and ending up in production builds, which is a strong argument for avoiding backdoors in the first place, convenience notwithstanding.
Some backdoors are there as a “feature”, for example so that the support desk can help you more quickly if you are on the road and forget your password, without needing to read you a lengthy, one-off recovery code that you have to type in within a limited time.
But backdoors like this soon end up widely known, and widely misused, which is a strong argument for avoiding backdoors in the first place, convenience notwithstanding.
Lastly, some backdoors are requested by law enforcement or a country’s regulators, supposedly as an aid in fighting crime.
The claim is that strong encryption that can’t be cracked gives criminals and terrorists an unfair advantage, because it means they can communicate without fear of their conversations being eavesdropped or investigated.
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