President Obama Is Wrong on Encryption; Claims the Realist View Is ‘Absolutist’

TECHNOLOGY, 14 Mar 2016

TechDirt – TRANSCEND Media Service

11 Mar 2016 – This is not all that surprising, but President Obama, during his SXSW keynote interview, appears to have joined the crew of politicians making misleading statements pretending to be “balanced” on the question of encryption. The interview (the link above should start at the very beginning) talks about a variety of issues related to tech and government, but eventually the President zeroes in on the encryption issue. The embed below should start at that point (if not, it’s at the 1 hour, 16 minute mark in the video). Unfortunately, the interviewer, Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune, falsely frames the issue as one of “security v. privacy” rather than what it actually is — which is “security v. security.”

In case you can’t watch that, the President says he won’t comment directly on the Apple legal fights, but then launches into the standard politician talking point of “yes, we want strong encryption, but bad people will use it so we need to figure out some way to break in.”

If you watch that, the President is basically doing the same thing as all the Presidential candidates, stating that there’s some sort of equivalency on both sides of the debate and that we need to find some sort of “balanced” solution short of strong encryption that will somehow let in law enforcement in some cases.

This is wrong. This is ignorant.

To his at least marginal credit, the President (unlike basically all of the Presidential candidates) did seem to acknowledge the arguments of the crypto community, but then tells them all that they’re wrong. In some ways, this may be slightly better than those who don’t even understand the actual issues at all, but it’s still problematic.

Let’s go through this line by line.

All of us value our privacy. And this is a society that is built on a Constitution and a Bill of Rights and a healthy skepticism about overreaching government power. Before smartphones were invented, and to this day, if there is probable cause to think that you have abducted a child, or that you are engaging in a terrorist plot, or you are guilty of some serious crime, law enforcement can appear at your doorstep and say ‘we have a warrant to search your home’ and they can go into your bedroom to rifle through your underwear to see if there’s any evidence of wrongdoing.

Again, this is overstating the past and understating today’s reality. Yes, you could always get a warrant to go “rifle through” someone’s underwear, if you could present probable cause that such a search was reasonable to a judge. But that does not mean that the invention of smartphones really changed things so dramatically as President Obama presents here. For one, there has always been information that was inaccessible — such as information that came from an in-person conversation or information in our brains or information that has been destroyed.

In fact, as lots of people have noted, today law enforcement has much more recorded evidence that it can obtain, totally unrelated to the encryption issue. This includes things like location information or information on people you called. That information used to not be available at all. So it’s hellishly misleading to pretend that we’ve entered some new world of darkness for law enforcement when the reality is that the world is much, much brighter.

And we agree on that. Because we recognize that just like all our other rights, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc. there are going to be some constraints that we impose in order to make sure that we are safe, secure and living in a civilized society. Now technology is evolving so rapidly that new questions are being asked. And I am of the view that there are very real reasons why we want to make sure that government cannot just willy nilly get into everyone’s iPhones, or smartphones, that are full of very personal information and very personal data. And, let’s face it, the whole Snowden disclosure episode elevated people’s suspicions of this.


That was a real issue. I will say, by the way, that — and I don’t want to go to far afield — but the Snowden issue, vastly overstated the dangers to US citizens in terms of spying. Because the fact of the matter is that actually that our intelligence agencies are pretty scrupulous about US persons — people on US soil. What those disclosures did identify were excesses overseas with respect to people who are not in this country. A lot of those have been fixed. Don’t take my word for it — there was a panel that was constituted that just graded all the reforms that we set up to avoid those charges. But I understand that that raised suspicions.

Again, at least some marginal kudos for admitting that this latest round was brought on by “excesses” (though we’d argue that it was actually unconstitutional, rather than mere overreach). And nice of him to admit that Snowden actually did reveal such “excesses.” Of course, that raises a separate question: Why is Obama still trying to prosecute Snowden when he’s just admitted that what Snowden did was clearly whistleblowing, in revealing questionable spying?

Also, the President is simply wrong that it was just about issues involving non-US persons. The major reform that has taken place wasn’t about US persons at all, but rather about Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which was used almost entirely on US persons to collect all their phone records. So it’s unclear why the President is pretending otherwise. The stuff outside of the US is governed by Executive Order 12333, and there’s been completely no evidence that the President has changed that at all. I do agree, to some extent, that many do believe in an exaggerated view of NSA surveillance, and that’s distracting. But the underlying issues about legality and constitutionality — and the possibilities for abuse — absolutely remain.

But none of that actually has to do with the encryption fight, beyond the recognition — accurately — that the government’s actions, revealed by Snowden, caused many to take these issues more seriously. And, on that note, it would have been at least a little more accurate for the President to recognize that it wasn’t Snowden who brought this on the government, but the government itself by doing what it was doing.

So we’re concerned about privacy. We don’t want government to be looking through everybody’s phones willy-nilly, without any kind of oversight or probable cause or a clear sense that it’s targeted who might be a wrongdoer.

What makes it even more complicated is that we also want really strong encryption. Because part of us preventing terrorism or preventing people from disrupting the financial system or our air traffic control system or a whole other set of systems that are increasingly digitalized is that hackers, state or non-state, can just get in there and mess them up.

So we’ve got two values. Both of which are important…. And the question we now have to ask is, if technologically it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system where the encryption is so strong that there’s no key. There’s no door at all. Then how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot? What mechanisms do we have available to even do simple things like tax enforcement? Because if, in fact, you can’t crack that at all, government can’t get in, then everybody’s walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket. So there has to be some concession to the need to be able get into that information somehow.

The answer to those questions in that final paragraph are through good old fashioned detective work. In a time before smartphones, detectives were still able to catch child pornographers or disrupt terrorist plots. And, in some cases, the government failed to stop either of those things. But it wasn’t because strong enforcement stymied them, but because there are always going to be some plots that people are able to get away with. We shouldn’t undermine our entire security setup just because there are some bad people out there. In fact, that makes us less safe.

Also: tax enforcement? Tax enforcement? Are we really getting to the point that the government wants to argue that we need to break strong encryption to better enforce taxes? Really? Again, there are lots of ways to go after tax evasion. And, yes, there are lots of ways that people and companies try to hide money from the IRS. And sometimes they get away with it. To suddenly say that we should weaken encryption because the IRS isn’t good enough at its job just seems… crazy.

Now, what folks who are on the encryption side will argue, is that any key, whatsoever, even if it starts off as just being directed at one device, could end up being used on every device. That’s just the nature of these systems. That is a technical question. I am not a software engineer. It is, I think, technically true, but I think it can be overstated.

This is the part that’s most maddening of all. He almost gets the point right. He almost understands. The crypto community has been screaming from the hills for ages that introducing any kind of third party access to encryption weakens it for all, introducing vulnerabilities that ensure that those with malicious intent will get in much sooner than they would otherwise. The President is mixing up that argument with one of the other arguments in the Apple/FBI case, about whether it’s about “one phone” or “all the phones.”

But even assuming this slight mixup is a mistake, and that he does recognize the basics of the arguments from the tech community, to have him then say that this “can be overstated” is crazy. A bunch of cryptography experts — including some who used to work for Obama — laid out in a detailed paper the risks of undermining encryption. To brush that aside as some sort of rhetorical hyperbole — to brush aside the realities of cryptography and math — is just crazy.

Encryption expert Matt Blaze (whose research basically helped win Crypto War 1.0) responded to this argument by noting that the “nerd harder, nerds” argument fundamentally misunderstands the issue:

If you can’t read that, Blaze is basically saying that all crypto includes backdoors — they’re known as vulnerabilities. And the key focus in crypto is closing those backdoors, because leaving them open is disastrous. And yet the government is now demanding that tech folks purposely put in more backdoors and not close them, without recognizing the simple fact that vulnerabilities in crypto always lead to disastrous results.

So the question now becomes that, we as a society, setting aside the specific case between the FBI and Apple, setting aside the commercial interests, the concerns about what could the Chinese government do with this, even if we trust the US government. Setting aside all those questions, we’re going to have to make some decisions about how do we balance these respective risks. And I’ve got a bunch of smart people, sitting there, talking about it, thinking about it. We have engaged the tech community, aggressively, to help solve this problem. My conclusions so far is that you cannot take an absolutist view on this. So if your argument is “strong encryption no matter what, and we can and should in fact create black boxes,” that, I think, does not strike the kind of balance that we have lived with for 200, 300 years. And it’s fetishizing our phones above every other value. And that can’t be the right answer.

This is not an absolutist view. It is not an absolutist view to say that anything you do to weaken the security of phones creates disastrous consequences for overall security, far beyond the privacy of individuals holding those phones. And, as Julian Sanchez rightly notes, it’s ridiculous that it’s the status quo on the previous compromise that is now being framed as an “absolutist” position:

Also, the idea that this is about “fetishizing our phones” is ridiculous. No one is even remotely suggesting that. No one is even suggesting — as Obama hints — that this is about making phones “above and beyond” what other situations are. It’s entirely about the nature of computer security and how it works. It’s about the risks to our security in creating deliberate vulnerabilities in our technologies. To frame that as “fetishizing our phones” is insulting.

There’s a reason why the NSA didn’t want President Obama to carry a Blackberry when he first became President. And there’s a reason the President wanted a secure Blackberry. And it’s not because of fetishism in any way, shape or form. It’s because securing data on phones is freaking hard and it’s a constant battle. And anything that weakens the security puts people in harm’s way.

I suspect that the answer is going to come down to how do we create a system where the encryption is as strong as possible. The key is as secure as possible. It is accessible by the smallest number of people possible for a subset of issues that we agree are important. How we design that is not something that I have the expertise to do. I am way on the civil liberties side of this thing. Bill McCraven will tell you that I anguish a lot over the decisions we make over how to keep this country safe. And I am not interested in overthrowing the values that have made us an exceptional and great nation, simply for expediency. But the dangers are real. Maintaining law and order and a civilized society is important. Protecting our kids is important.

You suspect wrong. Because while your position sounds reasonable and “balanced” (and I’ve seen some in the press describe President Obama’s position here as “realist”), it’s actually dangerous. This is the problem. The President is discussing this like it’s a political issue rather than a technological/math issue. People aren’t angry about this because they’re “extremists” or “absolutists” or people who “don’t want to compromise.” They’re screaming about this because “the compromise” solution is dangerous. If there really were a way to have strong encryption with a secure key where only a small number of people could get in on key issues, then that would be great.

But the key point that all of the experts keep stressing is: that’s not reality. So, no the President’s not being a “realist.” He’s being the opposite.

So I would just caution against taking an absolutist perspective on this. Because we make compromises all the time. I haven’t flown commercial in a while, but my understanding is that it’s not great fun going through security. But we make the concession because — it’s a big intrusion on our privacy — but we recognize that it is important. We have stops for drunk drivers. It’s an intrusion. But we think it’s the right thing to do. And this notion that somehow our data is different and can be walled off from those other trade-offs we make, I believe is incorrect.

Again, this is not about “making compromises” or some sort of political perspective. And the people arguing for strong encryption aren’t being “absolutist” about it because they’re unwilling to compromise. They’re saying that the “compromise” solution means undermining the very basis of how we do security and putting everyone at much greater risk. That’s ethically horrific.

And, also, no one is saying that “data is different.” There has always been information that is “walled off.” What people are saying is that one consequence of strong encryption is that it has to mean that law enforcement is kept out of that information too. That does not mean they can’t solve crimes in other ways. It does not mean that they don’t get access to lots and lots of other information. It just means that this kind of content is harder to access, because we need it to be harder to access to protect everyone.

It’s not security v. privacy. It’s security v. security, where the security the FBI is fighting for is to stop the 1 in a billion attack and the security everyone else wants is to prevent much more likely and potentially much more devastating attacks. Meanwhile, of all the things for the President to cite as an analogy, TSA security theater may be the worst. Very few people think it’s okay, especially since it’s been shown to be a joke. Setting that up as the precedent for breaking strong encryption is… crazy. And, on top of that, using the combination of TSA security and DUI checkpoints as evidence for why we should break strong encryption with backdoors again fails to recognize the issue at hand. Neither of those undermine an entire security setup.

We do have to make sure, given the power of the internet and how much our lives are digitalized, that it is narrow and that it is constrained and that there’s oversight. And I’m confident this is something that we can solve, but we’re going to need the tech community, software designers, people who care deeply about this stuff, to help us solve it. Because what will happen is, if everybody goes to their respective corners, and the tech community says “you know what, either we have strong perfect encryption, or else it’s Big Brother and Orwellian world,” what you’ll find is that after something really bad happens, the politics of this will swing and it will become sloppy and rushed and it will go through Congress in ways that have not been thought through. And then you really will have dangers to our civil liberties, because the people who understand this best, and who care most about privacy and civil liberties have disengaged, or have taken a position that is not sustainable for the general public as a whole over time.

I have a lot of trouble with the President’s line about everyone going to “their respective corners,” as it suggests a ridiculous sort of tribalism in which the natural state is the tech industry against the government and even suggests that the tech industry doesn’t care about stopping terrorism or child pornographers. That, of course, is ridiculous. It’s got nothing to do with “our team.” It has to do with the simple realities of encryption and the fact that what the President is suggesting is dangerous.

Furthermore, it’s not necessarily the “Orwellian/big brother” issue that people are afraid of. That’s a red herring from the “privacy v. security” mindset. People are afraid of this making everyone a lot less safe. No doubt, the President is right that if there’s “something really bad” happening then the politics moves in one way — but it’s pretty ridiculous for him to be saying that, seeing as the latest skirmish in this battle is being fought by his very own Justice Department, he’s the one who jumped on the San Bernardino attacks as an excuse to push this line of argument.

If the President is truly worried about stupid knee-jerk reactions following “something bad” happening, rather than trying to talk about “balance” and “compromise,” he could and should be doing more to fairly educate the American public, and to make public statements about this issue and how important strong encryption is. Enough of this bogus “strong encryption is important, but… the children” crap. The children need strong encryption. The victims of crimes need encryption. The victims of terrorists need encryption. Undermining all that because just a tiny bit of information is inaccessible to law enforcement is crazy. It’s giving up the entire ballgame to those with malicious intent, just so that we can have a bit more information in a few narrow cases.

President Obama keeps mentioning trade-offs, but it appears that he refuses to actually understand the trade-offs at issue here. Giving up on strong encryption is not about finding a happy middle compromise. Giving up on strong encryption is putting everyone at serious risk.

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