Canute’s Courtiers Condemn Consumer Crypto

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In 1818, Jeremiah Chubb collected a reward of £100 (a fairly princely sum back then — depending on how the inflation is calculated, perhaps upward of half a million US dollars today) from the British government. After a major dockyard burglary, the government ran a competition to produce a lock which could only be opened with its own key. Chubb’s “detector lock” took the prize.

Were they alive today, Chubb and his brother Charles (they also invented the modern safe) might find themselves doing quite well in a similar business: Encrypting data to keep it away from prying eyes. But instead of reaping rich rewards from the US government for that kind of work, they’d likely have US Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Richard Burr (R-NC), not to mention FBI director James Comey, calling for their heads.

Comey visited Capitol Hill on December 9, delivering his latest tantrum over encryption to the US Senate’s Judiciary Committee. He wants America’s tech industry to produce the equivalent of pre-picked locks: Encryption that the government can compromise at will with a court order.

At that same hearing, Feinstein announced that she and Burr intend to introduce a bill requiring Silicon Valley to implement Comey’s demand.

Fortunately for all of us, Feinstein, Burr and Comey are a modern trio of King Canute’s courtiers, operating on a false belief that the state can, by decree, halt the tide of progress. The strong encryption genie has been out of the bottle for 20 years, it’s not going back in, and it recognizes no borders. If this law passes, Americans who care about keeping their data private will just use existing encryption applications or get new ones from abroad.

That said, the Feinstein/Burr/Comey proposal is dangerous in at least two ways.

One is that unsophisticated consumers, users who don’t educate and protect themselves and just use handicapped Feinstein/Burr/Comey applications without strong encryption built in, will suffer from the equivalent of broken locks on their data “doors.” Terrorists, drug dealers, child pornographers and regular people who take extra precautions to secure their data won’t be affected. Aunt Sally’s diary and banking information will be.

The second danger is precedent. You wouldn’t remove the deadbolt on your front door, just in case these tyrants wanted to wander into  your house and check your bedroom closet for dead bodies whenever they felt like it, would you? This is the same principle. If we give them an inch they will undoubtedly ignore all stop signs as they take mile after mile, forever (or at least until they run out of gas).

Your privacy and your information are either yours or theirs. There’s no in-between. And there is no room for compromise.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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  • JdL

    Your privacy and your information are either yours or theirs. There’s no in-between. And there is no room for compromise.

    Indeed. The issue is at least as important as firearms.