Encryption and the gun
“Wrap it up!”
“Don’t go naked!”
“Zip your fly!”
All of these phrases share something in common; protection. Next to oxygen, protecting oneself is paramount to existence. It’s arguable that existence is most often taken for granted, surpassing even the under-appreciation for clean water.
In the earliest sense, protection for prehistoric humans came from fire, clothing and a well-hidden cave. It is a sense that is intrinsic to even the smallest of microbial life. For our friend the caveman, the eventuality of existence would come to include hunting, and aggressors; forcing survival instincts to be tested against another’s; including animal predators.
These examples are the manifestation of a logical principle, enforced by physical tools.
Spears, bows, catapults and the like, although not being the cleanest solution to a problem, were invented and adopted to enhance survival.
Consider that guns (and explosive projectiles) first appeared in China around CE 1000.
So how does all this tie into how we survive today? Well oddly enough, it seems the paradigm has shifted to more abstract tools which alleviate our need for the physical, in order to preserve our lives…. -Huh??
Little do we realize how much we’ve assimilated our biology to what was once a theory of the electron. Think about it, what’s the first thing you do when you wake up? Or better-yet, what device awakens you?? It’s a winning bet that an electronic device does the work.
Electronic gadgets are great (most of the time) and do generally provide a greater way of life. It is also the electronic data we should thank when it comes to keeping the most embarrassing details of our lives, private. -Enter: Encryption
The protection of our digital privacy has been a perpetual mission since what feels like forever. It safeguards bank accounts, medical records, and even your search history on the Web.
We don’t even thank encryption for its services most of the time. So long as we can see our Facebook notifications, Snapchat, and WhatsApp, all's right with the world.
However, electronic data is now so pervasive, encryption has become a required tool of modern day survival.
So what happens when the same encryption is used to hide infidelity? Or how about something far more sinister, like a terrorist plot?
How are we to judge of our friend encryption then? Has encryption failed us, or dutifully served the purpose for which it was created?
How about Edward Snowden? -For this exercise, let’s just call him “Ed”.
It was widely clamored that Snowden should be attributed with compromising the security of our nation.
-But what did he really do?
Ed decided he would blow the lid off of efforts by the government to break open the lock of encryption, as well as some pretty invasive follow-up activities, such as clandestinely reading email, activating your phone’s camera and/or microphone at any given moment.
These efforts weren’t targeted exclusively towards you and I (at least not that we know of, right?) but also at foreign governments; including our allies.
So when the media and officials made the attribution of a compromised nation to Ed, it kind of becomes a dose of irony.
It is possible that the bulk of damage inflicted to ‘our nation and to our safety’ was most likely egg on the collective faces of our leaders.
Admittedly, for whatever small, uninformed groups still sharing clear, non-encrypted chatter about terror plots at the time, Snowden probably offered some kind of concealment. –But is it rational to believe those would-be terrorists weren’t being monitored to begin with? –Or that bad guys of such a low caliber would even be effective if they somehow slid under the radar?
It could be argued that Ed did more to educate John Q. Public on the behavior of his own government, than he did to endanger “him”.
There’s a bitter irony present when terrorist groups are more “in the know” than the innocents.
Encryption was invented and institutionalized as a means to protect information.
The paradox of what is to be done with tools meant to protect is quite perplexing once they’ve been used to cause harm.
Has data collection thwarted would-be terrorists? –In the US, no. Abroad, kinda…
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (or EFF) published refutation of claims made by officials which state that electronic spying (aka breaking encryption) has done well to keep us safe.
So if the “nerds” are saying that the act of breaking down the tool used to keep our data safe, isn’t really keeping us safe, what are we to make of a disassembly of firearms?
As a brainstorming exercise, how would a world without encryption look? How is this similar to agents (good or bad) being able to decipher data in today’s world?
How is this similar to a world with or without guns?
Lastly, I’d like to hear from you. Would you ban all encryption? –Why?
Take care, friends!
For more reading, have a look at these links:
Prism Project and Snowden
Snowden not exactly to blame for terrorist groups utilization of encryption (see: http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2013/06/25/did-nsa-leaks-help-al-qaeda/) (and: http://thehackernews.com/2014/05/al-qaeda-encryption-tool.html)