General Michael Hayden has a simple message for FBI Director James Comey: stop obsessing over content and focus on metadata. The former director of the NSA and the CIA said that unbreakable encryption is inevitable, unstoppable, and that the worst thing that could happen to the United States would be a successful effort to outlaw such technologies in this country.
The comments came during an interview at TechCrunch's Disrupt this week, where General Hayden spoke about a wide ranging series of topics relating to national security, politics as related to national security, and encryption—Jeff Gamet and I discussed his interview during this week's Apple Context Machine.
Here's the interview in full:
I've picked out what I thought was the most important comments below, but the whole interview is well worth your time.
At roughly the 18:55 mark, General Hayden talks about how powerful metadata can be. Metadata is the information that travels with your phone calls. It identifies the parties, time, and often place involved in a call (and some other transmissions of data), and it's not constitutionally protected.
Accordingly, he posited that America's security apparatus should focus on using metadata and to stop worrying about the content that is on devices. From the interview:
The argument I make is that it really doesn't matter what Director Comey says, it doesn't matter what Congress says, it really doesn't matter what a court's going to decide. You know that the unavoidable arc of technology is in the direction of unbreakable encryption, and that no laws are going to get in the way of that reality.
I'm just talking to my old friends as the former Director of the NSA, it doesn't matter. Your ability to recover content in your legitimate activities, in your legitimate foreign intelligence activities, your ability to recover content is going to get smaller and smaller and smaller.
So my advice is: get over it! There's still a lot of things you can legitimately do to keep America safe through electronic surveillance even though you can't recover content. Don't spin your wheels trying to create laws or court decisions that are going to get in the way of something that's going to happen anyway.
Let's say they have their way and they criminalize totally unbreakable encryption, then we will get the worst of all all possible outcomes: totally unbreakable encryption will be pushed offshore. And if you want a problem that is the Devil's own problem for American intelligence, that's it.
Despite such advice—such a realistic reading of reality itself—Director Comey continues to do exactly that, obsess over content and consider legal action against encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp and court remedies that would allow the FBI to use a tool it purchased to crack open iPhone 5C devices.
I do so hope that General Hayden's words eventually penetrate the thinking of politicians, Director Comey, and others in the Obama Administration who cling to the idea that they can have backdoors into encrypted services.
Of course, in less than a year we'll have to worry about what a new administration thinks on the issue. So there's that.