Software isn’t politics, Mr President

With all due respect, the recent remarks on the FBI v. Apple iPhone unlocking case makes the least sense of anything I’ve heard from President Obama. It happens to be a topic I know about over a career working on cryptography, security, and information privacy.

Refuting his points may be the most succinct way to argue the issue yet. Source is the president’s remarks at Silicon Valley SXSW conference.

“You cannot take an absolutist view on this,”
  • The principles of security and cryptography demand “absolutist views”, sorry but it’s math and logic which are not known for being adaptable to “compromise”.
“If your argument is strong encryption no matter what, and we can and should create black boxes, that I think does not strike the kind of balance we have lived with for 200, 300 years, and it’s fetishizing our phones above every other value.”
  • It’s about the right to have private conversations, it’s not about the phone.
  • The FBI is fetishizing their accustomed practice of wiretapping which was only possible in the analog age and the early digital systems that evolved from it.
  • Two or three hundred years ago (if you want to bring that up) there was absolutely no way the government could do pervasive surveillance of personal conversations. Clearly this is an issue vastly beyond the imagination of any of the authors of the constitution (science fiction was not even conceived of then).
“They empower individuals to do things that they could have never dreamed of before, but they also empower folks who are very dangerous to spread dangerous messages.”
  • Indeed, and it’s true of every fundamental technology and always will be.
  • It’s the same reason we don’t have safe and terrorist-proof fire arms or nuclear energy, or printing presses that only publish good writing.
“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 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?”
  • First, it’s quite technically possible: for example, Lavabit built it but was summarily shutdown by secret government actions.
  • Government law enforcement has many investigative and enforcement powers other than wiretapping. Congress makes legislation. The executive branch has agencies such as ATF and many regulations.
  • US courts authorize about ten wiretaps a day (in 2014, latest available). Clearly law enforcement is doing a lot of other things to stop crime and wiretapping is not essential to maintaining law and order.
“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.”
  • The analogy to a Swiss bank account is very weak: the carriers know who owns iPhones (they don’t sell prepaid “burners” to my knowledge) and can tell the government already. Obviously, you can’t fund a terrorist operation with an iPhone.
  • If I use two cans with a string there is no way the government can tap that: is it really a threat to national security?
  • Should we also outlaw speaking with code words (during the Manhattan Project, uranium was referred to as “copper”)

I’ll add a few more points that need consideration.

  • Humans have been using various forms of cryptography for thousands of years to protect confidential communications.
  • If private communications are the Achilles heel of modern law enforcement should we have pervasive surveillance camera, hidden microphones, or perhaps implants so no secrets are possible?
  • Modern digital technology and software tools allow anyone to build their own secure system and distribute it freely and use it over the internet.

This isn’t even a close argument: keep the government out of our technology. As I understand the principles of American society we need to be resilient and secure without compromising our basic human rights.

In closing, here is quote another source:

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. — Ben Franklin
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