It’s Not About Privacy — Phone Protection Today is Personal Safety Tomorrow

Ryan Shea
Ryan Shea
Mar 16, 2016 · 7 min read

By now you’ve probably come across the big tech policy debate of the day…

Should we embrace and encourage strong encryption in our consumer devices or should we outlaw it and give law enforcement agencies universal backdoors?

Some frame this debate as the individual privacy vs. national security debate, where those in defense of strong encryption (encryption without backdoors or master keys) prioritize the former while those looking to ban it prioritize the latter. Of course, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Consider this incident in which sea pirates hacked a shipping company in order to plan massive raids on its cargo:

The violent criminals of yesterday are relatively unsophisticated, mostly focusing on utilizing the physical weapons at their disposal. But unfortunately the violent criminals of tomorrow are more technologically sophisticated than you could imagine, focusing on information acquisition as a means to find weak spots and magnify influence.

Strong encryption does in fact allow us to maintain privacy, but it is also vital to our personal and national security, and without it we would be in much bigger trouble than most of us realize. And as we get deeper and deeper into the digital age, this fact will only become more and more true over time.

In the digital age, information is power and the inability to control information is powerlessness and peril.

Further, the vulnerabilities due to information compromise aren’t simply applicable to businesses. They apply to individuals just as well. We are moving into an age where every waking moment of our lives will be surrounded by technology we depend on for our physical safety.

From the cars we drive…

To the drones we use to film weddings and work on farms…

To our thermostats and home automation systems…

…a large percentage of our machines and devices depend on strong encryption (and strong digital signature systems) to maintain both operational security and information security.

A hacked car can result in a not-so-accidental accident. A hacked fleet of drones can be even more scary. And a hacked home can mean anything from juicy information for a sophisticated assassin to a scene out of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Which brings us to the matter of the FBI’s goals to reduce the security of our Apple iPhones…

It should be pretty clear by now that our devices need strong levels of security, and thus strong encryption. But it’s important to realize that this security imperative is even more important for our phones and other mobile devices. Much more than communication tools, our phones are extensions of our brains.

Today our phones house a good portion of our cherished memories, but they are also quickly becoming universal remotes for our highly technological lives. Thus, compromising the security of the phone means compromising everything.

Now, it’s a tempting thought to try to solve this issue by introducing a key escrow system, where the government holds one chunk of a master key and corporations like Apple hold another chunk of the master key and can combine them to unlock anything.

But unfortunately, this has been tried before with little luck:

For government-mandated key escrow systems to be successful, all other encryption would need to be banned and even then criminals would still find alternatives amongst the thousands of products by corporations and engineers around the world. And of course one would have to assume that the chips were never stolen or abused, but we know better than to assume that.

I don’t know about you but I’m not foolish enough to think that the government is any good at protecting information:

Quite the set of pipe dreams.

The OPM hack, by the way, represents a long-term national security threat that is many orders of magnitude greater than almost anything we’re currently obsessing over. That’s because (1) the information that leaked out is gargantuan (2) much of the information is extremely sensitive, and (3) once information gets out, it’s out forever and can be used against whomever it pertains to. Imagine what will come back to bite us over the next few decades as a result of the health, financial and travel data on 20 million Americans being compromised. As an example, one immediate concern is that the identities of many CIA operatives are in danger of being exposed.

Some point out that the best tech companies have protected valuable information and will be able to continue to do so. They say that since Apple has the ability to protect its operating system source code, surely it must be able to protect a master key that can get into any device.

The reality, though, is that we must assume that determined hackers will eventually get their hands on anything. There’s a very good chance that Apple’s source code was actually compromised but we just haven’t heard about it. And if it truly hasn’t been compromised, then that’s likely because a stolen copy doesn’t have much commercial value (due to strong copyright laws and the fact that the operating system is useless without accompanying hardware). The theft of a master key, though, if it ever was created, would mean that the hacker would instantly have the ability to hack all devices around the planet. Make no mistake, this is a doomsday scenario, and it is imperative we avoid any paths that lead to this possibility.

Here’s a great interview with John McAfee on the subject:

Note that John doesn’t mention privacy once. He focuses on the fact that our personal security is dependent on the security of information, but the FBI representative keeps trying to frame the conversation as “privacy vs. security” because he knows that holding up privacy on a pedestal is a losing proposition in the public eye.

Of course, that still leaves us with the burning question — how do we stop criminals if we cannot get immediate access to all of their phones?

The short answer is — we do as we’ve always done. In decades past we’ve utilized methods like wiretapping the landlines of individual citizens. Warrants were acquired and specific field agents were assigned to conduct surveillance operations. This was effective and didn’t compromise personal security at large. It ensured that there was a limit to the number of citizens the government could surveil at any given time, and at the same time it ensured that just about anyone could be surveilled.

Now before you jump to the conclusion that we don’t have capabilities like this anymore in the face of strong encryption, consider the facts. Mass surveillance techniques may be our cheapest tools, but individual hacking techniques have gotten so sophisticated that effective surveillance can be conducted if only a modest amount of resources are directed to a single individual, even if they’re using the most secure systems.

Here are some examples of clever methods that talented hackers and law enforcement officers alike have at their disposal:

It should be clear from these examples that surveillance technology is pretty far ahead of our ability to defend against it. Law enforcement has many tools at its disposal and if they focus on these tools and hire talented hackers, they’ll continue to be able to acquire the information they need. In fact, any information security expert will tell you the FBI could easily get into the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone by just asking the NSA for help.

That brings us to the two paths we have going forward…

On the one hand, we can take a quick hit from the “ban encryption” bong today, compromising the modest progress that we’re making with regards to device security, but we’ll eventually wake up with a pounding headache of terribly dangerous hacks and attacks.

On the other hand, we can prioritize individual device security and focus on alternative individual surveillance methods, allowing us to keep ourselves secure from hackers and at the same time ensuring that we can catch the bad guys.

The choice is ours.

I just hope we don’t lose sight of what this debate is about. It’s not about privacy vs. security — it’s about security today vs. security tomorrow. And it’s time we focus on some more long-term thinking.

Ryan Shea

Written by

Ryan Shea

Co-founder of Blockstack

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