The Key-Under-the-Doormat Analogy Has a Flaw

The crypto wars are back, and with them the analogy of putting keys under the doormat:

… you can’t build a backdoor into our digital devices that only good guys can use. Just like you can’t put a key under a doormat that only the FBI will ever find.

(Rainey Reitman: An Open Letter to President Obama: This is About Math, Not Politics)

This is only truthy. The problem of distinguishing desirable from undesirable interactions to permit the former and deny the latter lies indeed at the heart of any security problem. I have been arguing for years that security is a classification problem; any key management challenge reminds us of it. I have no doubt that designing a crypto backdoor only law enforcement can use only for legitimate purposes, or any sufficiently close approximation, is a problem we remain far from solving for the foreseeable future.

However, the key-under-the-doormat analogy misrepresents the consequences of not putting keys under the doormat, or at least does not properly explain them. Other than (idealized) crypto, our houses and apartments are not particularly secure to begin with. Even without finding a key under the doormat, SWAT teams and burglars alike can enter with moderate effort. This allows legitimate law enforecement to take place at the cost of a burglary (etc.) risk.

Cryptography can be different. Although real-world implementations often have just as many weaknesses as the physical security of our homes, cryptography can create situations where only a backdoor would allow access to plaintext. If all we have is a properly encrypted blob, there is little hope of finding out anything about its plaintext. This does not imply we must have provisions to avoid that situation no matter what the downsides are, but it does contain a valid problem statement: How should we regulate technology that has the potential to reliably deny law enforcement access to certain data?

The answer will probably remain the same, but acknowledging the problem makes it more powerful. The idea that crypto could not be negotiated about is fundamentalist and therefore wrong. Crypto must be negotiated about and all objective evidence speaks in favor of strong crypto.


About Sven Türpe

Sven Türpe is a computer scientist. His current research focus is on security engineering methods, techniques, and tools. All opinions expressed in this blog are his own.