Encryption Part I: An Uncrackable Safe

By Paul Syers

A hundred years ago, if police wanted to search someone’s private safe, they had to show cause to do it.  If a judge decided they had justifiable reason, the police would obtain a warrant to search the safe. Society accepted that the warrant gave them the authority to do it.  (Even if that person refused, someone could physically crack open the safe to reach the contents inside.)  This basic kind of authority is at risk of being taken away.  

People have always debated, and should continue to debate, when the government should and should not have the right to obtain information, electronic or otherwise.  The protection from search and seizure provided in the Constitution is not absolute.  Lawmakers and citizens have always acknowledged that there are cases when the government is justified in searching your stuff and taking it from you to use in due process. There is no reason this should not continue to be true in the digital realm.

The question is now being asked whether or not the government should even have the ability to get certain kinds of digital information by way of getting around an encryption technology.  A backdoor key gives the government that capability, and that’s why Federal Agencies are arguing for it.  It’s not a question of privacy it’s a question of capability. I think an authority should be able to quickly get crucial data when it has a justifiable need for it.  We give the federal government the highest authority in the U.S. (the buck has to stop somewhere, as they say, and our systems says it stops with the Federal government), so it’s reasonable to me that they should have backdoor access to encryptions.  Otherwise we’re looking at an instance where private companies do not have to submit to the authority of the federal government, even under reasonable circumstances, which is not a good precedent to set. 

After learning that the Paris attacks were planned using communication that was encrypted in a way that authorities could not quickly access, this makes even more sense.   

Once authorities have the ability, the responsibility is on us to ensure they use that ability justly (which would only be in rare cases), and punish them if they don’t.  It’s not like the government will immediately begin looking at all encrypted data; they have neither the resources, nor the desire. 

It’s not like the old rules no longer apply.  If authorities want backdoor access to the information, they will need to go through the proper channels and show just cause.  The ability granted by this tool should be balanced with weight of responsibility.  Let’s not tie our hands behind our back from the start by taking away the tool altogether.

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