Arguments against strong encryption will break down on a long enough timeline. If not for the simple reason that strong encryption protects everyone and weakening it will inevitably make us all less safe, then the fact that interfering encryption research in the west won’t stop malevolent actors from further developing the open source encryption tools permanently available to them by law. For many of these tools are open source, not merely made available at the whim of their creators, and this means their code is immutably available, for better or worse.
However, the tools we refer to here are not the ones that everyday people, and, if the governments have it right, terrorists are relying on. Rather, they are packaged into communications tools like Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, iMessage, and others. These communications providers have seemingly banded together over the past year to ensure that encrypted communications are available to their customers. Facebook even added a Tor hidden server, making Facebook accessible from the dark web.
Government officials worldwide have shamelessly capitalized on the attacks in Paris to make renewed calls for restrictions on encryption technology. Common wisdom tells us, given the epic failure of the decades-long War on Drugs and the prevalence of illegal arms as well as child pornography, that the government cannot effectively ban anything. The government making something illegal simply creates a black market in it, and typically only those willing to break the law then have it. In a more digital example, the seemingly immutable nature of content piracy is another great example. Those willing to pay subscription fees and download fees to content providers do so, but the rest continue to pirate like it’s 1999. This is to say that even if officials have their way, the bad guys will still use encryption, even if they are forced to pick up development on their own.
And, like guns, officials aren’t calling on the government, which controls the NSA, a clearinghouse for many encryption standards, to abandon encryption. For that would be madness. The government can be trusted until they can’t, as we learned regarding the activities of the other wing of the NSA.
Now Presidential Candidate and former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is calling for Silicon Valley to help the government in its mission to make communications less secure. As most politicians, she seems to have no clue what she’s actually asking them to do. Security doesn’t work if it’s only available to some, privacy doesn’t exist if it’s only available to certain levels of privilege. Freedom of speech is certainly less real if it’s only available for acceptable forms of political speech.
Nevertheless, in an address to the Brookings Institute yesterday, Clinton told audience members that this isn’t about freedom, privacy, or encrypted communications. This is about destroying terrorists. Ignoring the old adage about those who would sacrifice freedom for security, Clinton said:
You are going to hear all the familiar complaints: ‘freedom of speech’ […] We need to put the great disrupters at work at disrupting ISIS.
Facebook and other companies have not been shy about deleting the accounts of people who violate its policies about violence and hate speech (or even those who just seem related to ISIS), but at the same time the company’s goal is to provide social connectivity for the entire globe. It would seem that if some of these people hold Jihadist beliefs and even discuss them with their friends on the platform, well, it’s not as if that couldn’t happen in the analog world.
Clinton has indubitably cast herself as one of the more stone-age candidates in this race, but then again, none of the current list has shown a particular aptitude for how technology works. Instead, they all seem to believe that encryption can be modified to their purposes, or that privacy is only deserved by those they approve of, and they apparently cannot see the logical conclusion of their arguments – a dystopia much more real than any science fiction novel.
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