Tech at Night: Barack Obama’s FBI director takes a stand against cryptographic privacy

Tech at Night

Imagine a safe, one used to store important papers, extreme valuables, or even guns. When we put our things into a safe, to keep things secure against a determined thief. It’s very important they aren’t able to get in and take these things, so we ensure our safes are very difficult to open without authorization. The idea that we’d have a secret back door that could be exploited to gain unauthorized access, perhaps by the manufacturer, bypassing our control of the lock, would be unthinkable.

Yet, this is exactly what Obama’s FBI head, James Corney, is asking for when it comes to the safes protecting our online data. It’s madness.

I have long been a defender of NSA (one of our nation’s leading data intelligence and counterintelligence groups), of FISA (the spy courts), of ECPA as written (the law that allows ISPs to give access to their email servers), and of the overall role of government in monitoring online activities to further legitimate law enforcement and national security objectives. However, one big reason I’ve taken this position is that little of these surveillance techniques work against effective encryption techniques.

Basically, most of this “government spying” is rendered completely ineffective by the use of free, modern, commodity encryption tools and techniques widely available today. Anyone who wanted a great deal of privacy would be able to chose to take it, however, most Americans do not value their privacy, and are willing to sell it for cash and convenience.

However the fact that most Americans give away their data does not mean that we should all be mandated to do so. Even if we mistrust the crank Internet encryption communities out there, groups like Tor which are magnets for criminals and terrorists, the fact is we have a right to close the drapes, we have a right to lock our doors, and we have a right to encrypt our data.

Encryption is a lot like a gun. In fact, export law used to treat it as a munition. It’s a powerful tool that, put in the hands of honest people, is protective and good. In the hands of crooks and terrorists, it’s a tool for evil. The fact that the bad guys will encrypt their data is no more a reason for encryption restrictions, than the fact that bad guys get guns, is a reason for gun control.

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