Even If Terrorists Do Use Strong Encryption, We Still Need It

Crypto back doors will not just weaken our own security; they also won’t stop new attacks.

National Security Agency headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland” | Photo credit: Unknown | Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

A few days ago I posted this on Twitter:

It was a popular item, getting a bunch of retweets. But I realized later that I was wrong to post it, because I fell right into a trap the surveillance statists have been laying. I was implying that if the terrorists had used strong encryption, then the government might be right about wanting to ban it.

I wasn’t the only one who did this. A lot of people I respect — and who are on the reality side of this conversation — made similar comments when no evidence emerged to show that the criminals in Paris used encryption for most (or possibly any) of their communications. On this, and surveillance in general, we risked conceding a crucial point that could, and based on the current global panic probably will, help lead to the further unraveling of basic liberties.

You could see this on Twitter, of course, but also in the news and commentary on big and small media sites. Here’s an example, from Reason, a libertarian publication:

Inconveniently for the intelligence community, it looks like the Paris attacks had nothing to do with encryption at all. Recent reports from France and Belgium suggest that most planning for the attacks took place over good, old-fashioned, unencrypted text messages that investigators were able to access using good, old-fashioned law enforcement techniques.

The Reason commentary does explain, at length, why is would be crazy to weaken encryption even if does emerge, contrary to evidence so far, that the Paris attackers used these techniques. But the emphatic debunking of the “they used encryption” mantra is still problematic.

People who protect liberty have to take care not to imply, much less acknowledge, that the draconian anti-liberty measures advocated by the surveillance state crowd are justified, tactically or morally, no matter what the circumstances. Someday a terrorist will be known to have used strong encryption, and the right response will be: “Yes, they did, and we still have to protect strong encryption, because weakening it will make things worse.”

Why? Because encryption is actually a straightforward matter, no matter how much fear-mongering law enforcement officials and craven, willfully ignorant politicians spout about the need for a backdoor into protected communications. The choice is genuinely binary, according to an assortment of experts in the field. You can’t tamper this way with strong encryption without making us all less secure, because the bad guys will exploit the vulnerabilities you introduce in the process. This isn’t about security versus privacy; as experts have explained again and again, it’s about security versus security.

Moreover, as current and former law enforcement officials lead a PR parade for the surveillance-industrial complex, pushing again for pervasive surveillance, they ignore not just the practical problems with a “collect it all” regime — it drowns the spies in too much information to vet properly — but also the fundamental violation of liberty that it represents. These powers are always abused, and a society under surveillance all the time is a deadened one, as history amply shows.

Of course we need some surveillance, but in targeted ways. We want government to spy on enemies and criminal suspects, but with the checks and balances of specific judicial approval, not rubber stamps for collect-it-all by courts and Congress. The government already has lots of intrusive tools at its disposal when it wants to know what specific people are doing. But our Constitution has never given the government carte blanche to know everything or force people to testify against themselves, among other limits it establishes on power.

The Paris aftermath is yet another demonstration of the news media’s weak understanding of freedom. With rare exceptions, traditional-media journalists (a word that more and more deserves to be in quotes) are culpable for the panic and paranoia that leads to liberty-killing policies. You expect this stuff from Fox and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, but supposedly neutral CNN has been especially appalling since the Paris violence, with its all-fear-all-the-time programming and an evident disinterest in correcting the lies of the people it invites on TV to frighten the public even more.

Meanwhile, the editorial board of the Washington Post once again insisted that Silicon Valley, or someone, come up with magical math to have strong encryption that can only be broken by good people. Like the politicians, police and spies they parrot, the Post editorial writers remind you of a child who demands a puppy that doesn’t age or poop, and upon being told it can’t be done, stamps his feet and shouts, “I want my puppy!”

Sadly, not many news outlets have even tried to explain the encryption issue in a reality-based manner. Quoting people who lie is bad enough, but not immediately explaining the truth may be even worse.

Journalists haven’t, as a rule, reminded the public that we use strong encryption every day when we shop online. They haven’t explained why whistleblowers, who bravely tell the press and public about wrongdoing in governments, corporations and other big institutions, are at huge risk in a surveillance state. They don’t connect the dots between sensationalistic coverage of, say, the Sony hack and the need for businesses to be able to conduct negotiations securely. We need more and better security in our daily lives, not less and worse.

Journalists almost never talk about risk in realistic ways, because emotions rule. Any one of us is vastly less likely to be injured or killed by a terrorist’s bomb or gun than by a gun at home or a car accident on our streets and highways.

But fear attracts audiences and readers, and that seems to be the main driver of coverage. Do journalists understand how that editorial agenda will erode liberty? Do they care?

Meanwhile, I keep waiting for a presidential candidate to say words to this effect: “Yes, there will be more attacks, even here in America, because we can’t protect everyone and every place while also protecting liberty. But our strength is in that liberty and our resilience, not our collective paranoia. Our Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, is an agreement that we will take some risks in order to have liberty. That’s the trade our founders made, and which we honor.”

Follow Backchannel: Twitter | Facebook