Understanding the political technology of encryption

Where Apple, the FBI, and ISIS meet

Why This Matters | Tyler Delhees | April 25, 2016

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“We think encryption is a must in today’s world,” broadcasted Tim Cook, after issuing a riveting and crisp defense of Apple’s refusal to cooperate with the FBI.  This came after the Federal Bureau of Investigation requested Apple’s assistance in breaking the iPhone passcode of a suspect in the San Bernardino shooting. Since then, not only did the FBI hack into the suspect’s phone (for a price of $1 million), but the confrontation also reconfirmed that the personal privacy versus national security debate is alive and robust.

With the ubiquity of Apple products across campus and the growing presence of encryption technologies, we, along with ISIS, use this ancient methodology on a daily basis. What is encryption, and why does it matter?

The process of encryption, which dates back to the time of Herodotus, is glossed over as an esoteric, technical concept. It is a timeless tool that has evolved while maintaining a formidable capacity to securely exchange information.

Let’s look at encryption in the context of an iMessage sent between you and bae, a confidential message that the government should never have the ability to read. Thanks to Apple’s 2014 decision to add encryption services into iOS, your romantic correspondence is guarded with advanced algorithms previously concentrated in the hands of the elite and governments.

On the most basic level, encryption is a process of concealing a message by means of a scrambling rule understood only by the sender and receiver; hence, end-to-end encryption. You are the sender, and bae is the receiver. This scrambling rule, or substitution algorithm, along with a unique private key, or cipher alphabet, ensure that no rogue hacker or government agent without either can decipher and read your messages.

In iOS, Apple adds a layer of security by embedding a secret key into the hardware of your iPhone (Apple does not save these keys, which is why it claims that it cannot view data on your iPhone). This unique ID is combined with your lock-screen passcode and run through an algorithm that produces the encryption key. It is this key that undergirds the encryption protecting data on your iPhone. To clarify the relationships in play, take a look at these graphics:






Source: The Code Book by Simon Singh 

More powerful keys involve multiple cipher alphabets that can be implemented through a complex algorithm. Historically, cryptography has provided a critical advantage to nation-states at war, especially Britain and the United States with the Navajo code talkers.

The process securing our communications over iMessage utilizes these ancient cryptographic principles along with many HUGE prime numbers that can be the size of a few phone books stacked. Why are prime numbers so powerful in encryption? It has to do with the fact that it is extremely difficult for computers (…and humans) to work backwards given the product of two very large prime numbers. Two prime numbers, x and y, are multiplied together to get a random number k. This number k becomes the public key while x and y make up the private key. Left with an absurdly random number and no clues leading to the private key, computers working backwards on unearthing the private key will take years and years to successfully complete a brute-force attack. Moreover, the most powerful computers would need over a BILLION years to test every possible key from some encryption methods.

The Apple-FBI showdown has cooled down for now, but encryption will prevail at the center of the debate between national security advocates and privacy protectors. In the meantime, we shouldn’t be surprised to see Facebook writing the next chapter.