After months of attempts, the FBI recently revealed that it is unable to get into the San Bernardino shooter’s phone, and is now claiming that it needs Apple to build a backdoor so that security officials can access the phone.
The situation reeks of a lot of the problems plaguing the way Americans think about technology, or rather the lack of thinking that goes on around the devices that have come to largely shape our lives.
Breaking down encryption is not something can be done in a specific set of cases, but rather once the door is opened it is difficult to close. Many politicians and government officials in Washington have advocated such a solution. Hillary Clinton has called for a “Manhattan Project” style coming together of technological minds to deliver a solution, and FBI Director James Comey has called directly for Apple to provide a tool that will provide a backdoor into its iPhone operating system.
This flawed logic likely comes from one, or a mix, of two places. One, the United States is doing a really poor job at STEM education and two, the government is willing to make massive security and economic sacrifices to have universal access to the data of its citizens.
The first point is of course the less damning one, as a simple shortage in technical minds in government is likely something that can fix itself over time. I have called in this publication for politicians in the 21st century to have a genuine knowledge of the technology that powers our society, as otherwise the policy crafted around it will be sorely lacking in substance and effectiveness. For example, we still have laws that refer to “internet websites.”
This would explain why members of both Congress and the Justice Department are launching a questionable attack on Apple, making the claim that if the company cares about Americans then it will build such a tool for the FBI. The issue with this, as noted by an MIT study from July of 2015 entitled “Keys Under Doormats: Mandating insecurity by requiring government access to all data and communications,” is that in a fundamentally insecure environment, removing security measures will have massive economic and social costs that are not being anticipated by politicians.
This is of course understandable. Tom Cotton, who has been very vocal against Apple in recent days, has a BA from Harvard, but with no technical background to speak of. James Comey, while he has a background in Chemistry from his undergraduate degree, appears to not have much in the way of technical chops. These are smart people, but they do not understand the policy for which they advocate.
Unless of course one flips the assumption that they are genuinely looking out for the best interests of the country. If one assumes they are instead looking for increased power via increased control over American’s information, then their support of such policies makes sense. Breaking down encryption would give the FBI unprecedented access to Americans’ data, which is a remarkable statement considering what is already being collected by the National Security Agency.
Another important note in this line of thinking is that it is difficult to prove that bulk data collection and decreased data security has led to a drop in terror attacks. The FBI has made claims that they have prevented attacks because of bulk collection, but the evidence to support this claim is not clear and they are not fully transparent. It also does not clearly define what they view as an attack, or whether or not the description includes domestic terror.
Which line of logic it is is tough to discern, but even if it were a mix it would still be concerning in terms of the impacts it could have on American society. If companies are forced to build in backdoors to your iPhone, any hacker in the world could access anything stored in there. Private photos, bank information, insurance information even location information.
It continues that the only way to help fight such policies is for the voting population to educate themselves on these issues. That doesn’t mean a computer science degree is needed (does one need an english major to appreciate a good book? A medical degree to know when they’re sick?), it just means that a basic understanding of math and computers would go a long way towards improving the climate around technology policy.
Whether it’s ignorance or malice is not particularly important. Encryption is what helps keep Americans safe, and not vice versa.