The recent, senseless tragedies in Paris and Mali are mind benders that cause us to once again question the fairness of life and the world at large. It seems that we have these moments weekly if not daily nowadays. Random, seemingly inhuman shootings and killings are happening all around us even here is the USA – at our schools, on our streets, to our leaders (Gabby Giffords is a friend with whom I had dinner 8 days before she was shot).
So as we pick up these most recent pieces, we send our hearts and prayers out to everyone who lost a loved one, in Europe and Africa, and to ourselves for having to live in a world with such monsters. I think we can all agree on that. What we can’t seem to agree on now is the issue of encryption.
Our government and others in the European Union are using Paris as a means of rekindling their efforts to kill encryption. Simply put, they want to get rid of all code that blocks them from spying and getting into our business. They want to see our online activities, location, phone conversations, and emails. Maybe one day, our thoughts and feelings too. In many ways, they’re aspiring to become a real-life version of “The Minority Report,” where they can use the Internet to label each of us as good or bad eggs and prevent crimes before they happen.
But here’s the problem: most of us aren’t terrorists. We’re law-abiding, or pretty close anyway, citizens. And if you’re a law abiding citizen, then shouldn’t the law abide by you? This isn’t a one way street. That’s not democratic. Laws are a pact in which the government creates something for us that we vow to follow for them. If only the government agrees on the point and forces us to follow ideas we know violate our rights, then the pact is broken as is our democracy.
Imagine a world where all governments know your religious beliefs and ancestry, medical ailments, political views and affiliations, causes you support, and truly your innermost thoughts. We basically then become a combination of China and North Korea. Scary as this sounds, Facebook and Google already know all of this about us. The leap from them to the government is more like a baby step. Now imagine that all governments are of the highest integrity and act only in the best interests of protecting their citizens and their citizen’s rights. Oops, wrong planet. We live on the planet where governments often engage in ethnic cleansing, prejudice, targeting, and regrettably many other infractions.
Encryption protects us. That’s not just me ranting either. Back in July, some of the world’s top security technologists said the same thing, concluding that governments shouldn’t have special access to encrypted communications. Doing so would put the world in a whole lot of danger and give governments the kind of information that can be used nefariously to threaten, cleanse, control, prejudice, and violate their citizenry. The Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), recognized as the global voice of the tech sector, agreed, declaring the following: “Encryption is a security tool we rely on everyday to stop criminals from draining our bank accounts, to shield our cars and airplanes from being taken over by malicious hacks, and to otherwise preserve our security and safety.”
That sounds pretty good to me. So does our Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. And for that matter you can throw in the United Nations Declaration of Rights, which states that “No citizen should be subjected to arbitrary interference of their privacy, family, home or correspondence.” Sure, okay, but that’s just the United Nations, right? Who cares?
I do. Rights aside though, if we sacrifice our freedoms then we do so now not just for the government and our safety, but for the criminals too. Apple CEO Tim Cook said as much with a very simple point: “You can’t have a back door in the software because you can’t have a back door that’s only for the good guys.”
Okay, fair enough, but there are two sides to every story. So what is the other side saying? Law officials claim encryption cripples criminal investigation. They can’t protect us without minding our business. Our CIA Director and FBI Director are taking turns bemoaning the fact that encryption even exists. Clearly, they miss the good ole days when their agencies could act outside the law and still be portrayed as the protagonist in films.
The facts tell a different story. The FBI admitted in May of this year that the Patriot Act didn’t crack any major cases. It did however collect bulk records of our phone calls. Who knows where those records are now? In 2014 I attended a conference where James Dempsey, Board Member, PCLOB (The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board), stated that “after 14 years of analyzing the nation’s phone call data collected because of section 215 of the Patriot Act [telephone metadata program], not one bad guy was discovered that wasn’t already known.”
Even this eye-opening fact doesn’t stop powerful people in government from believing their backs are only safe if they can spy on all of us. Back in January, England’s Prime Minister, David Cameron actually had the audacity to ask, “Do we want to allow a means of communication between people which we cannot read?” In a word, “yes.”
And what does France want? France is threatening to insist on access, which the New York Times thinks China would love to death, turning the encryption argument from protection to suppression of freedom. That’s not a movie I’d like to see.
Michael S. Rogers, the director of the NSA, thinks he has it all figured out. We should force technology companies to create a digital key to unlock encrypted data. In other words, let the law do all the hard work opening the door so they can get back to doing the voodoo that they do so well, USA Freedom Act be damned. Leave it to the NSA to find new offensive ways to suggest sacrificing our liberties.
A few years ago, the great Peggy Noonan so elegantly captured in an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal, the essence of privacy: “Privacy is connected to personhood. It has to do with intimate things–the innards of your head and heart, the workings of your mind–and the boundary between those things and the world outside.” A few weeks ago,Tim Cook aptly rebuked the Prime Minister’s call to weaken encryption: “If you halt or weaken encryption, the people that you hurt are not the folks that want to do bad things. It’s the good people. The other people know where to go.”
The ITI gave what I consider to be a very eloquent summation of the issue: “weakening encryption or creating backdoors to encrypted devices and data for use by the good guys would actually create vulnerabilities to be exploited by the bad guys, which would almost certainly cause serious physical and financial harm across our society and our economy. Weakening security with the aim of advancing security simply does not make sense.” I could not agree more. In fact, I would add to that.
Privacy and security are not opposing forces but mutually beneficial of each other and crucially intertwined as a means of protecting and advancing us. We need to protect them both in order to truly protect ourselves. Law enforcement has many methods for discovering bad people who are intent on doing bad things. Our forefathers understood all of this when they crafted the 4th Amendment to our Constitution.
Privacy is the highest order that is to be protected. As Apple’s Cook says, “If those of us in positions of responsibility fail to do everything in our power to protect the right of privacy, we risk something far more valuable than money–we risk our way of life.”
Originally featured on Huff Post.