Protecting Yourself with Strong Encryption isn’t Absolutism
This is a great story about healthcare encryption by Kevin Scott.
It is about Healthcare encryption and why it is so important.
President Obama showed up at SXSW today and weighed in on the escalating fight between the DOJ and Apple over whether or not Apple should have to modify iOS to allow the government to break into an iPhone.
“We have engaged the tech community aggressively, and what my conclusion is so far is that you cannot take an absolutist view on this,” he said. “If your argument is strong encryption no matter what … that I think does not strike the balance that we have lived with for 200, 300 years, and it’s fetishizing our phones above every other value. That can’t be the right answer.”
The thing is, I don’t think the tech community is being absolutist here. I’d like you to imagine for one moment how you would react if the government told you that there was a limit to how strong a front door you could use on your house, or a limit on how well your door lock could work, on the off chance that they’d need to break down your front door someday to execute a search warrant and they wouldn’t want to contend with an unbreakable entryway. Or imagine the government asking you to give them a copy of the key to your front door, just in case they needed to have a look around your house for the security of the country. What if the government was actively trying to force these changes on you, without going through Congress or having a real public debate first? If you spoke out and said you had concerns, would you be engaged in absolutism? I suspect not.
For many in the tech community the ability to use strong encryption to protect your personal information is a straightforward issue. It’s equivalent to being able to have an arbitrarily strong front door and lock on your house where no one can get in unless you let them. There are no laws restricting how strong you can make doors and locks on your home. If you want to wire your storage devices up to your home alarm so that they destroy themselves if the alarm goes off, that’s your right. Etc., etc.
It’s not illegal to secure your property, and in the physical domain that fact is neither controversial, nor up for debate.
In the virtual domain of mobile devices, clouds, and the Internet, strong encryption is the equivalent of a locked door. It’s there to protect your property from theft and other uses not approved by you. You are entirely within your rights to use strong encryption to protect yourself. And for that fact, we should all be thankful, because without it, it would be incredibly easy for someone to steal or access your virtual property without you even knowing about it.
The issue at hand in the current Apple vs DOJ case, is not the legality of strong encryption, but whether or not the government should be able to compel a company to write software that weakens strong encryption built into its products in order for the government to conduct an investigation. No one is arguing that the investigation that the government is conducting is incredibly important: it is. No one is arguing that the government is not trying to do their best to provide justice and closure for the people impacted by the criminals under investigation. And no one is arguing that the government is not doing their best to try to keep us all safe.
But let’s go back to the door and lock metaphor. What the government is asking Apple to do is the equivalent of asking a lock manufacturer that has sold hundreds of millions of “guaranteed secure” locks to make sure that the locks can all be opened by a master key, and to give the government that key. Would you be ok with the government having a key to your house? Why is that any different than the government having a key to your virtual property? And if there’s nothing in the law right now requiring manufacturers of secure products to provide backdoors to the government, why aren’t we having a public debate about changing the law and giving the government the power to control how we secure our property, rather than trying to do it with a potentially precedent-setting lawsuit?
I’m a huge fan of the government having the tools and resources necessary to keep us safe. I’m an even bigger fan of liberty and having important changes to our rights go through the scrutiny of informed public debate and working their way through the legislative process. I don’t think that’s absolutism. It’s American.