At the recent Democratic debates, front-runner Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying that in order to combat the growing threat of ISIS, the government would need to work with technology partners to begin dismantling “encrypted communication that no law enforcement agency can break into”.
When asked about the threat of terrorism in America, Clinton was unequivocal in her call for increased pressure on encryption efforts from the biggest tech companies in Silicon Valley, treading the same line that law enforcement needs to have a back door into suspicious communications.
“I would hope that, given the extraordinary capacities that the tech community has and the legitimate needs and questions from law enforcement, that there could be a Manhattan-like project — something that would bring the government and the tech communities together to see they’re not adversaries, they’ve got to be partners.”
The specifics of what the former Senator meant for a “Manhattan-like” project was lost under a layer of political speak, though she was referring to the political and military R&D efforts of the Second World War to create nuclear weapons. Clinton appeared to be suggesting a similar mass effort but this time for Internet and ISIS.
Many pundits and tech industry analysts have thrown in their two cents about what a project of that magnitude might look like if it were ever put into action. Most agree that if there ever was going to be one, what we’ve seen out of the NSA so far is pretty much it. Edward Snowden called the idea “terrifying”.
The NSA’s “Equation Group”, discovered in March by Kaspersky Lab, left its researchers baffled at the scale and complexity of the malware designed by the US government to monitor countries around the world including Iran, Russia, and China.
According to its reports, the malware likely took hundreds, possibly even thousands of programmers years to develop, a production schedule that mirrors the creation of the atomic bomb.
Breaking encryption on a global scale is no simple feat, and if our government intends on wielding tools that could bring down the digital blockades of an entire country, it should decide if that sort of capability is worth the risk of it getting loose and going public.
Just like the destructive forces that came out of the original Manhattan Project, viruses like Stuxnet and the malware produced by the Equation Group are extremely powerful pieces of technology that – if they were ever to fall into the wrong hands – could prove catastrophic for the world as a whole. So when Hillary Clinton talks about creating a Manhattan Project for cybersecurity, she should know that we already have one, and it’s just as powerful and terrifying as the effort from which it gets its namesake.