After Paris: Liberté demands unlimited encryption

Allowing back door access to encrypted communication would destroy privacy not only for people but also governments and businesses

After Paris: Liberté demands unlimited encryption
Jean Jullien (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

The neocons are at it again: After the tragedies of the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday (and Beirut the day before), they're arguing that governments need to be able to access all communications from everyone, purportedly to protect us from future terrorist attacks. They're making their case in leading newspapers and TV networks. Now they want to be able to break into encrypted communications on demand, over such services as Telegram or Apple Messages. 

Using the Paris attacks as a pretext to create an Orwellian police state is morally perverse, and we should not let fear stampede us to living in a police state.

This is personal for me: Not only am I a dual French-American citizen, but my family remembers painfully how the Nazis rounded up Jewish neighbors and Résistance fighters in occupied France using the dossiers collected by the French authorities on its citizens -- never again.

The truth is the Nazis today would want the same access to encrypted communications as the U.K. government does and that many in the intelligence and police communities do worldwide.

Everyone wants to spy on us, it seems

Evil people and criminals have long used technology to communicate secretly -- but so do freedom fighters, activists, and the persecuted. China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and dozens of other dictatorships would happily agree with U.S. and U.K. policing agencies seeking such spying power to "keep us safe." China is pressuring tech companies to do exactly that. Is that what we really want?

In fact, governments that have nearly unfettered access to their citizens' communications can't stop it all, even if you agree that they should be able to spy on everyone to "keep us safe." There is no technology silver bullet. But there is a slippery slope we are already too far down on allowing governments (and corporations) the ability to see everything we do digitally.

The neocons have been trying to get this spying power long before the Paris attacks, using fear to gain unfettered access to everything we say and see. Paris is only the latest tool in their campaign to get blanket spying approval. Tech companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft have been resisting, such as by creating encryption for which they don't hold the keys and can't be used as police proxies.

Still, the U.K. government is seeking a new law that gives the police the right to force technology providers to unlock encrypted communications. That means tech companies must build backdoors that they access themselves or turn over to the authorities.

BlackBerry, then known as Research in Motion, did that for multiple governments in 2011 so that they could spy on the encrypted communications of their citizens. And it wasn't "just" for autocracies like Saudi Arabia but democracies like India. You know that Western countries have the same access.

And the tech companies that are now opposed to government-required backdoors have long been complicit in providing governments -- domestic and foreign -- access to user data. It seems that they're finally waking up to the reality of how bad it has become and their role in enabling it.

Whether they can resist, such as Apple has been trying to do by eliminating its own ability to decrypt users' iPhones, is an open question. For example, would Apple really leave its second-largest market, China, over government demands to access citizens' data and communications? Or leave the U.K. market, whose proposed laws would put all new iPhones in violation of the decryption requirement?

We now know, thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden, how deeply U.S. intelligence has infiltrated our communications systems, with hooks into the telecommunications, Internet, server, and social media services we all use.

The NSA has more resources than anyone, but every major country does the same. Some countries simply pretend less. For example, we are aware the Russians and Chinese spy deeply across the globe. So do the British and French, both of which have very permissive laws that enable spying -- Britain has cameras, microphones, and digital taps everywhere, while France requires no judicial permission for police to monitor anyone they suspect.

The dishonest argument that seeks us to give up our privacy

The neocons are now trying to blame Snowden for purportedly steering terrorists to encrypted services to avoid detection by intelligence agencies. That's worse than nonsense; it shows a fundamental dishonesty that should call into question all of their claims.

Snowden revealed the NSA's and others' abusive, illegal activities in 2013, yet intelligence agencies missed many attacks coordinated over channels they could spy on: the attacks on Istanbul in 2003; in Madrid, Beersheba, and Moscow in 2004; in Tel Aviv in 2006; in London in 2007; in Madrid in 2007; in Jakarta in 2009; in Moscow in 2010; in Mogadishu and Delhi in 2011; and in Boston in 2013. Clearly, Snowden didn't help the terrorists get past our intelligence agencies.

There can be no guarantee that we will catch all plots before they hatch, and while we should protect ourselves where possible, we can't trade security for loss of liberty. People, good and bad, will always find a way to work around authorities.

There's no such thing as a good Orwellian state

Ironically, intelligence, military, and police agencies use the same encryption technologies to protect their own communications from terrorists and criminals. So do presidents, prime ministers, and chancellors. So do people in oppressive countries like Iran, China, and Russia. So do rebels we support in places like Syria. 

Apple CEO Tim Cook is right: If you create access to encrypted communications for one party, you create it for all parties. The notion that somehow only the good guys would have access is nonsense. After all, the Iranians, Chinese, Russians, Saudis, Americans, British, French, jihadhis, ISIS/ISIL/Daesh, Taliban, white supremacists, Rohingya, Uyghurs, Kurds, Tibetans, Chechnyans, Palestinians, oppressed religionists of all stripes, and so on all believe they are the good guys. Who gets to decide?

Don't forget that those backdoors will let criminals and terrorists spy on companies, governments, and people; governments on each other, on people, and on companies; and companies on each other, on people, and on governments. Essentially, no communication would be private or secure.

You don't have liberty if you don't have privacy, and you don't have privacy if anything you say, write, or watch is or can be intercepted by others. Orwellian governments are bad and can't be justified by security fears.

Encryption is one of the last methods available for protecting our privacy and thus our liberty. We must not give it up.

And we must not use an attack on the nation that has idealized liberté to justify its loss.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.