The Attorney General William Barr has proposed a ban on digital information encryption in all its forms, in a move that would have a devastating impact on cryptocurrencies. Speaking at the White House Summit on Human Trafficking last week, Barr took aim at the concept of end-to-end encryption, with his comments coming a day after a bill was proposed that would allow authorities a ‘back door’ into encrypted services.
Distrust of Governments has Increased Desire for Privacy
Barr’s comments address a growing trend for messaging applications to offer end-to-end encryption as standard, including Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, and Telegram. Barr contends that this encryption offers those wishing to carry out illegal activities a safe haven in which to operate, a criticism that has been levelled at cryptocurrencies many times in the past. This argument negates the reason why people want end-to-end encryption in the first place – they no longer trust the government and don’t want them snooping on their private affairs.
Barr and Senator Lindsey Graham are targeting encryption through the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies (or EARN IT) Act bill which, as part of it, demands that government officials be given back-door entry for into the privacy of all individuals’ private conversations and payments.
Banning encryption, or creating a back door into encryption services, could give authorities the ability to intercept and halt cryptocurrency payments they deemed illegal, a prospect that would only serve to catch a great deal of completely innocent transactions and drive illegal use underground. At the same time it would decimate entire swathes of the completely legitimate side of the blockchain industry, with the only potential workaround likely to be some kind of licensing system. See the New York BitLicense to find out how well that has worked out.
Were such a bill carried forward it would undoubtedly be challenged in court by privacy groups as being unconstitutional, with comparisons no doubt made to the likes of surveillance-heavy states like China.
Knee-jerk Reaction to Government Sloppiness
The desire for such a bill is yet another knee-jerk reaction to a problem of the government’s own making. End-to-end encryption has been around for years (Telegram launched with full end-to-end encryption in 2013), governments have just been too slow in adapting to the changing world.
Making up for lost time by blanket banning all encrypted data is like taking a sledgehammer to a walnut – heavy handed and completely impractical. The encryption genie is out of the bottle, and trying to put it back in, and at the same time trying to strip Americans of a vital part of their freedom, is simply not going to work.