National Press Club

‘Internet evangelist’ warns against law-enforcement backdoors

May 4, 2015 | By Heather Forsgren Weaver | HeatherForsgrenWeaver@gmail.com

Vint Cerf, vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google, told a May 4 National Press Club luncheon audience that Congress must find the balance between no privacy and absolute privacy of digital information.

Vint Cerf, vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google, told a May 4 National Press Club luncheon audience that Congress must find the balance between no privacy and absolute privacy of digital information.

Photo/Image: Al Teich

A technical backdoor should not be created to allow law-enforcement access to protected digital information, Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google, told a National Press Club luncheon May 4.

Law enforcement has long sought a technical way to access protected information on devices without the device owner’s knowledge. The issue re-emerged when both Apple and Google said operating software for their smartphones will include encryption that cannot be accessed without the owner’s consent.

There is a “real tension” between the amount of privacy that people want and what is needed to secure the Internet and the government’s need to protect society, said Cerf, who is widely regarded as a father of the Internet.

There must be a place in between no privacy and absolute privacy, he said, and “that place is not the same place for everyone.”

Congress must figure out the balance, Cerf said.

“They are going to have to listen to these various arguments about protection and safety on the one hand, and preservation of privacy and confidentiality on the other,” he said. “I am not persuaded that building backdoors is the right way forward.”

The backdoor debate is not new, Cerf said, noting the Clipper Chip in the 1990’s was designed to do the same thing.

“I was absolutely adamantly against the Clipper Chip idea,” Cerf said. “If you have a backdoor, somebody will find it.”

Another old debate that has recently re-emerged is whether the government should regulate the Internet using rules written for voice technology. The Federal Communications Commission recently decided to use the voice-technology rules, known as Title II of the Communications Act, to ensure equal access to the Internet.

Google has been at the forefront of the net-neutrality debate. While Cerf echoed Google’s general theme that “everyone should have equal access to the Internet,” he later said he worries that the FCC’s method of achieving that goal will not last.

“At some point, this tactic probably has to be re-addressed so if we are going to do anything at all in the regulatory space, it needs to be tailored to a network,” Cerf said. “We should not constrain the network simply in order to regulate it. We need to find a way to make sure that the network treats you fairly [and] incites competition but at the same time allows the FCC to protect your interests.”

A decades-long resident of the D.C. area, Cerf said he considers it a “privilege and a responsibility” to help policymakers understand the Internet.