Back when neo-conservatives weren’t at all shy about the need to be ever tougher on crime, ever more controlling of our lost morality, someone came along to promise hope and audacity. At a critical point in time, when privacy from the government stood at the precipice, he went to South By Southwest, a place no former president had ever gone, to offer the most progressive view the executive had to offer.
“This notion that somehow our data is different and can be walled off from those other trade-offs we make, I believe, is incorrect,” he said.
The hope is that we should trust the government. The audacity is the rationalization for why.
But the president warned that America had already accepted that law enforcement can “rifle through your underwear” in searches for those suspected of preying on children, and he said there was no reason that a person’s digital information should be treated differently.
Some of America was good about the government rifling through their underwear. Others, not so much. Something about having nothing to hide.
“If, technologically, it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system, where the encryption is so strong that there is no key, there is no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer?” Mr. Obama said. “How do we disrupt a terrorist plot?”
If the government has no way into a smartphone, he added, “then everyone is walking around with a Swiss bank account in your pocket.”
There are some who find bad analogies, appeals to emotion and false equivalencies persuasive. We’re fed a never-ending diet of illogic, and like a carefully-crafted Big Mac, have come to enjoy their tastiness and how easily they’re digested.
The president refused to address the United States v. Apple controversy directly, although everything he said was clearly directed toward reminding us that if we don’t do as the government wants, our children will be molested and the terrorists will win. The lengthy memorandums in the case drone on, with increasingly vicious accusations and just enough of the hint of threat that the choice is limited to bad and worse.
DOJ has submitted its response to Apple in the Syed Farook case. Amid invocations of a bunch of ominous precedents — including Dick Cheney’s successful effort to hide his energy task force, Alberto Gonzales effort to use kiddie porn as an excuse to get a subset of all of Google’s web searches, and Aaron Burr’s use of encryption — it included this footnote explaining why it hadn’t just asked for Apple’s source code.
That’s a reference to the Lavabit appeal, in which Ladar Levison was forced to turn over its encryption keys.
Lavabit was a legal fiasco, and Levison’s mishandling is now available to the government as a precedent, so that the future of privacy should be lost because one tech-doofus blew it for all eternity. And that is how the game is played.
So we’ve got two values. Both of which are important…. And the question we now have to ask is, if technologically it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system where the encryption is so strong that there’s no key. There’s no door at all. Then how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot? What mechanisms do we have available to even do simple things like tax enforcement? Because if, in fact, you can’t crack that at all, government can’t get in, then everybody’s walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket. So there has to be some concession to the need to be able get into that information somehow.
Yes, even simple things like “tax enforcement”? If the government doesn’t know all, doesn’t have access to everything, someone might get away with something somewhere. Like tax enforcement. A government doesn’t run on wishes, you know. It needs money, and lots of it. And no citizen has the right to deprive the government of its fair share of loot. Tax enforcement. If we don’t give up the last bastion of privacy for everyone forever, how can the government “even do simple things like tax enforcement?”
Now, what folks who are on the encryption side will argue, is that any key, whatsoever, even if it starts off as just being directed at one device, could end up being used on every device. That’s just the nature of these systems. That is a technical question. I am not a software engineer. It is, I think, technically true, but I think it can be overstated.
Mike Masnick calls this part “most maddening of all,” because the president understands what will be lost forever. But to assume that the president didn’t is silly. Of course he understands. And he also understands how we’ve indoctrinated the last couple generations to the inherent virtues of compromise, of giving up principle to get along in mandatory groups. The word “absolutist,” as used in conjunction with free speech or privacy, is a slur. As if someone can be kinda pregnant, or there can be kinda privacy.
But Mike is young, and apparently indoctrinated into the group hug thing, so he resists the epithet of “absolutist.”
This is not an absolutist view. It is not an absolutist view to say that anything you do to weaken the security of phones creates disastrous consequences for overall security, far beyond the privacy of individuals holding those phones. And, as Julian Sanchez rightly notes, it’s ridiculous that it’s the status quo on the previous compromise that is now being framed as an “absolutist” position.
It’s correct to say that we got here through compromise, but past compromise establishes the new baseline. If you don’t want to eventually find yourself at the bottom of a slippery slope, don’t step on it in the first place. Once you do, each compromise begets the next.
Also, the idea that this is about “fetishizing our phones” is ridiculous. No one is even remotely suggesting that. No one is even suggesting — as Obama hints — that this is about making phones “above and beyond” what other situations are. It’s entirely about the nature of computer security and how it works. It’s about the risks to our security in creating deliberate vulnerabilities in our technologies. To frame that as “fetishizing our phones” is insulting.
And, indeed, the audience at SXSW listened silently to President Obama’s explanation, unmoved and, likely, insulted by his rationalization. Were they so foolish, so ignorant, as to be manipulated by his arguments?
If the President is truly worried about stupid knee-jerk reactions following “something bad” happening, rather than trying to talk about “balance” and “compromise,” he could and should be doing more to fairly educate the American public, and to make public statements about this issue and how important strong encryption is. Enough of this bogus “strong encryption is important, but… the children” crap.
President Obama isn’t taking his position because he doesn’t get it. Of course he gets it. He’s not stupid. To entertain the belief that if only someone would make clear to the president the damage his position will cause it will somehow change his mind, cause an epiphany, make him “fairly educate the American public” of the dangers of what the government seeks to do, and we can beat back this affront to privacy.
The president is fairly educating the public, just as his predecessors, teachers and parents made fearful, have done. And it’s worked in the past, and it will likely work again. The lesson is clear. Our safety is in the hands of the government, and we must sacrifice our rights if we want to be safe. It’s our only hope.