Michael Dell: Encryption Backdoors Are a 'Horrible Idea'

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This story originally appeared on Fortune Magazine

Michael Dell, chief executive officer of his self-named computer company, knows on whose side he stands amid the great encryption debate—the question of whether tech companies should supply certain governments with access to their users’ encrypted communications. He is adamantly opposed.

“Our position on creating a back door inside our products so that the government can get in is that it’s a horrible idea,” he told the Telegraph, a United Kingdom-based newspaper, on Sunday.

Dell’s condemnation comes soon after Theresa May, the British home secretary, earlier this month unveiled a draft piece of legislation that proposes to grant UK spy agencies and law enforcement sweeping surveillance powers. The draft Investigatory Powers Bill requires communications service providers to assist the government in investigations by “maintaining the ability to remove any encryption applied by the CSP to whom the notice relates,” as the text of the bill states.

Depending upon the proposed bill’s implementation, it could greatly hinder or even end strong encryption in the country. (Although other people are skeptical that the bill, if adopted, would change much.)

Dell explained the logic behind his stance. “The reason it’s a horrible idea is if you have a back door it’s not just the people you want to get in that are going to get in, it’s also the people you don’t want to get in,” he said. “All of the technical experts pretty much agree on this.”

Indeed, many cryptographers and technologists have warned that weakening encryption would run counter to many businesses’ interests and cause harm to consumers as well as the economy. Any built-in entry point could also be exploited by another hacker or spy agency, they say.

Dell’s comments echo those of Apple CEO Tim Cook who told the Telegraph last week that “Any backdoor is a backdoor for everyone” and that “Opening a backdoor can have very dire consequences.” He has made similar comments throughout the year.

Big tech companies that sell directly to consumers across the globe have an obvious interest in protecting—or at least purporting to protect—their users’ privacy. Granting any particular government access to encrypted communications would no doubt lead to other governments—ones that may have less stellar records of protecting human rights—demanding the same privilege. That would likely cause customers to flee.

Most governments, on the other hand, want to be able to read people’s sensitive communications in the interest of national security, provided they have a proper warrant.

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