Prosecutors, Police Get Medieval on Privacy and Progress

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Ashley Carman of The Verge reports on the opening of a new front in American politicians’ war on personal privacy and technological progress: Legislators in California and New York have introduced bills  requiring the makers of smart phones sold in their states to intentionally compromise those phones with “back doors” for law enforcement.

Those two states are the test markets for a national — even global — effort backed by the National District Attorneys Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The ultimate goal of that effort is a repeal of the last 600 years of human history, at least where personal privacy and technological progress are concerned.

There are so many things wrong with the proposal that I simply can’t cover them in detail here. The short version:

First, “back doors” in high-tech products cannot be created in a way that only allow law enforcement to access information on the basis of lawful warrants citing probable cause. Any device so compromised is inherently vulnerable not just to state actors (who can’t be trusted to act lawfully) but to run of the mill criminals — hackers, identity thieves and so on.

Secondly, the strong encryption genie is out of the bottle and has been for decades. If Californians and New Yorkers can’t buy uncompromised phones in California and New York, they’ll buy those phones elsewhere. If such phones aren’t legally available  anywhere, those of us who value our privacy will simply procure add-on software or hardware that encrypts our data before it ever enters the compromised systems.

Finally, and most importantly, understand that the backers of this outrageous legislation are NOT your friends. Their goal is not to protect your life, liberty or property. Their goal is to maintain and expand their power over you. And this makes them and their ideas very, very dangerous.

The only way to stop the use of encryption on computers and cell phones is to stop the use of computers and cell phones. If you don’t think these megalomaniacs are willing to do that, you aren’t paying attention. They’ve done it before, not just in openly authoritarian polities like Egypt, but right here in the US, albeit temporarily and in a very localized manner. That’s a matter of scale, not of principle.

As I wrote five years years ago when then US Senator Joe Lieberman proposed an “Internet kill switch” for “national security” purposes, “if the price of keeping Joe Lieberman in power is you staring over a plow at the a** end of a mule all day and lighting your home with candles or kerosene at night before collapsing on a bed of filthy straw, that’s a price Joe Lieberman is more than willing to have you pay.”

Some of the faces have changed, but the stakes haven’t. You can have your freedom, your privacy and the benefits of modern technology, or those who would rule you can have their “back doors.” But it’s one or the other. The two sets of values cannot co-exist.

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


Also published on Medium.

  • Richard

    You know, there is irony in this as well as hubris and moral repugnance.
    The back doors are in all the communication switching devices at teh networking and call centers, for years now.

    So we know there is no protection on the network already. The incremental advantage of tapping the end user device might be useful to some local law enforcement (and I use that term reluctantly) but they are most likely only impeded from obtaining the massive piles of surveillance data that is collected in a minor way, like having to ask for it.

    Warrants are now written (national security letters) by agents of teh executive branch, without any pretense at due process.

    I’m with you Thomas. I know the people who read here are aware too. I can’t help wondering why people are unconcerned about this, but so enamored of the horse race for president. As if anything is going to change when teh next two-faced clown is ensconced at 1600 pa.

    Maybe we can design a new encryption along the lines of steganography (sic)… We could use vulgar rap music and anti-human lyrics to disguise our messages. At least it would hav eteh benefit o of inflicting pain on eavesdroppers.

    Maybe we could build it into the phones, an appropriate menu choice for encrypting could then be “F the man – #F”

    I’m just daydreamin’

    • Richard,

      Yeah, the ability to intercept our communications at will has been there for years — on the networks and in the switching facilities, as you point out.

      My impression is that there’s also considerable penetration to source, at various levels of targeting — that is, the ability to know what it was that you typed BEFORE you encrypted it and sent it out over the compromised networks.

      The latter is what concerns me vis a vis encryption, even more than demands for “back doors.” If Uncle Sugar’s folks have a keystroke logger on my machine that periodically dumps everything I typed directly to their database without my knowledge, it doesn’t MATTER if I encrypted that stuff before sending it.

      That’s why I’m thinking along the lines of separate hardware to encrypt stuff before it ever goes near your computer or phone. Of course the problem is making sure THAT hardware doesn’t get compromised.

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