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.

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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.

There are plenty of voices, from technology and academia, smart and less smart, explaining the impact of breaching any bastion of privacy in the future, but the President’s words give away the game:

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.

30 thoughts on “ObamaPhone

  1. Billy Bob

    The President is not available to take your call at this time. You may leave a message after the tone.
    Please speak slowly and repeat your telephone number twice. Encryption may not be working properly due to weather-induced conditions or regularly scheduled maintenance.

  2. Osama bin Pimpin

    As demonstrated in John Oliver’s Ed Snowden interview, the government just wants my phone to see my dick pics.

    Obama get off my dick.

    1. SHG Post author

      Oliver scares me. I enjoy his comedy, but I fear the sense that he could so easily fall on either side of an issue because of his simplistic grasp and the ease of ridicule. On the bright side, I have no embarrassing photos on my phone and, because I’m not 12, never will.

      1. Neil

        My website puts encrypted child porn into it’s cookies, so the last time you visited my site with your phone’s browser, some child porn was left in your browser cache. But don’t worry, I invented the encryption system myself, and it’s so good you will never be caught. Besides, even if the government beats the password out of me, everybody knows that I wouldn’t share it with you.

          1. Neil

            Damn! Well since the government want’s to hold people responsible for the content of their computers, phones, etc… I’m going to have to brush up on my Startac virus writing skills. All my criminal schemes revolve around a sort of extortionist business model, which I have trademarked ‘Digital Dropsy’. Fortunately for me, the government’s desires and mine mesh well – I want to surreptitiously install software that does my bidding on as many ‘customer’ devices as possible, and the government wants to hold people responsible for whatever those devices do. Under development, I have a cell phone dirty bomb detonator that can be rigged to detonate any dirty bomb that is within 100 feet of the Digital Dropsy customer. That’s why I find this whole ‘safety’ line of argument moot. If the government wins, and weakens security across the board, its easier for me to acquire Digital Dropsy customers. Then, I can use any Digital Dropsy customer device to carry out my evil schemes and stick the blame on the Digital Dropsy customer. If the government loses, well then I have a secure place to conceal my nefarious activities. Either way, as long as your sufficiently flexible in the crimes you imagine, there’s a way to make good on the governments actions.

            1. SHG Post author

              And it required this much more to make your point, because you didn’t do it well enough the first time?

      2. Osama bin Pimpin

        For the record, I am 12 years old, and am not embarrassed by what’s on my phone since I’m endowed like Harvard & Yale. I just object to creepy old men at the NSA wanting my goods and not even paying me for them.

        On a serious note, what issue do you think Oliver has been (deeply) on the wrong side of? Flippant comedy “analysis” has been the hallmark of persuasiveness since John Stewart got big. What can we do?

          1. NBNBNB

            Is your issue that he empathizes with women who face disdain online or his interest in criminalizing revenge porn?

            1. SHG Post author

              The lawyerly way to ask would be “what is your issue,” since you’ve given me only two choice, neither of which suffices. Usually, that’s an indication of someone lamely trying to dictate the response, but that would impute a disingenuous motive to you, plus suggest you’re inept at it. I will do neither.

              That said, among my issues are his horrific misapprehension of the First Amendment implications (which he tries to joke his way past) and criminalizing revenge porn, for which no constitutional law has as yet been crafted. As to his empathy, we all empathize with people (men too, even though it’s not fashionable) who are harmed. As to whether facing “disdain” is harm is another matter. We all face disdain online. Much of the time, we deserve it.

  3. losingtrader

    At Austin’s South by Southwest, people are too busy looking for ice to mix with their tonic and Absolutist (or Tito’s) to care about anything other than the coolness of the celebrity appearance.
    You can be sure when government gets the encryption keys you WILL have embarrassing photos on your phone, and a few hits of windowpane in your wallet if you upset someone in the gov.

    1. Patrick Maupin

      The rest of Austin is simultaneously happy they didn’t bother to listen to this drivel and pissed off that the whole city had to be shut down so Obama could come deliver it.

  4. Patrick Maupin

    Executive branch employment test

    1) The viewpoint that all devices should always be amenable to government search is not absolutist, it is _____________________ .

      1. greg higgins

        Except you can’t say Orwellian because nobody under 40 knows who Orwell was, and worse yet, they wouldn’t understand his complaint anyway. They have been raised on doublethink.

    1. Joseph

      Is it any less absolutist to assert that all devices and communications should be made impenetrable to any form of outside analysis?

      1. Patrick Maupin

        You’ve got the question completely backwards, which means that the propaganda worked on you, and/or that you expect it will work around here. Good luck with all of that and your life.

        1. SHG Post author

          When did “absolutist” evolve from a principled position to a slur? When did principles turn so fuzzy and wiggly that adhering to them even when it’s inconvenient is a bad thing?

          1. Patrick Maupin

            Almost 3 decades ago. See, e.g, a 1991 Cal. Law. Review article by Sean SeLegue about campus slur regulations, with a 1989 quote decrying absolutist free speech.

            It’s typically been a “progressive” denigration of “reactionaries” — like “inflexible”, only moreso.

            Which deliciously multiplies the ironies of its present usage by the feeler-in-chief, who may not have fully thought through his attempts at returning to Hoover’s 1950s.

  5. John Barleycorn

    ♡ “…it’s a convergence of diaper makers and logistics companies and Internet companies”♧

    You got to give the guy credit for going there even if it was the only example he had to choose from.

    P.S. Don’t forget to put your nappy on before your nap kids. Sweet dreams.

  6. Wrongway

    “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.”

    Who goes to the bank anymore ??
    In my tinfoil hat opinion, that’s what this is all about.. The Money.

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