Monday, April 4, 2016

Perspectives on computer security and encryption from Apple, the FBI and I : FBI

Many people have weighed in on the Apple vs FBI case, including a speech by President Obama.  People in the technology industry have lined up in support of one or the other.

My views can't be expressed as a simple support of one position or the other.  As I believe there is a third option I am authoring this as a series of articles that discusses the issue from three perspectives:

* This article discusses FBI
* A second article discusses my use of security and encryption technology
* A third article discussing Apple

Lawful Access

I've written about the question of lawful access before, and the requirement for there to be strong oversight of police and security agencies in order for those agencies to not themselves be the risk to society that they are supposed to be reducing.  Law enforcement and security agencies must have strong court oversight, and the courts themselves must have strong citizen oversight through ensuring the number of closed court sessions are kept to an extreme minimum.

There is a conflict of interest when it comes to law enforcement and security agencies and protecting the public.  Often these agencies will confuse protecting citizens against death from protecting their lives.  They promote policies which make it easier for them to find and punish wrongdoers, but generally have no concern about the harmful consequences of those policies on the health, safety and security of citizens.

FBI Opposition to encryption

There is no better example of why there is a need for checks-and-balances than the extreme views expressed by James B. Comey, Director of the FBI.  He has for some time been suggesting that the world is "going dark" because an increasing amount of communications is encrypted.  He sees only the narrow potential downsides of this technology in that it might hide criminal activity from the FBI, and ignores the critically important features -- the very fact that the modern economy and much of modern society is built upon private communications requiring strong encryption.

If Mr Comey were a doctor, he would recommend amputating a patients head to solve a back pain problem. He would be correct in saying that after amputation the patient would no longer feel back pain, and would likely be confused why people would consider that a failure.

Fortunately in our society we don't leave extremists like him solely in charge.  Even the NSA, which does its own cracking of encryption and has been accused many times of trying to weaken or put back doors in encryption, had its director come out in favour of encryption due to the extreme views expressed by Mr Comey.  In fact, there is a rift within the US government about this issue, and it is quite a complex one that simply can't be expressed by saying individuals and agencies are picking sides between Apple or the FBI.

The FBI or any other government agency, here in North America or elsewhere, should never be given "back door" access to technology in general as that would enable them to bypass the required checks and balances which the courts and the public must be able to provide in a democratic society.  I have absolutely no respect for the position that suggests they should have no barriers to their investigations, as I do not believe democracy and the required separation of power between agencies can ever be claimed to be a barrier to protecting a democracy.

Keep reading:  My use of computer security and encryption

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