Your message is either available to everyone or it’s hidden to anyone but its recipients: that’s the point of privacy and free speech—online or otherwise.
Encryption makes it happen. But government has always been a bit uneasy when you and I use it. The tension goes back at least 25 years.
In the ’90s, the NSA under Clinton crafted the Clipper chip. (Say that ten times fast.) The United States was intended to be subject to the MYK-78 chip because the government built in a back door. They could eavesdrop in real time to the voice transmissions the chip protected. (As it turns out, Matt Blaze discovered serious vulnerabilities allowing a technical attacker to bypass its encryption.)
Uncle Sam had the hubris to conclude that once the chip was embedded in US telecommunications services, everyone could be monitored. Not just unsuspecting citizens, but the evildoers as well. Especially the evildoers. The Clintonistas argued that because “terrorists would have to use it to communicate with outsiders—banks, suppliers, and contacts—the Government could listen in on those calls.”
Um… yeah, right.
“ The government does things like insisting that all encryption programs should have a back door. But surely no one is stupid enough to think the terrorists are going to use encryption systems with a back door. The terrorists will simply hire a programmer to come up with a secure encryption scheme. ”
— Kevin Mitnick; American computer security consultant, author and hacker
Today, the Trump administration’s Attorney General, William Barr, keeps the friction going between our privacy and government surveillance, notes the EFF, with the so-called EARN IT bill, sponsored by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) of “We will impose our will on you” fame, and Zoom-bashing Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).
Barr has made it very clear he wants to ban the encryption you and I may use, and guarantee law enforcement so-called “legal access” to any digital message you and I may send. Service providers that don’t play ball can be sued into compliance or bankruptcy. No less a giant than Apple caved, though they don’t make it clear that they did.
Riana Pfefferkorn, at Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society, says it’s a safe bet EARN IT would include requirements that encrypted content be made available to law enforcement in decrypted form.
“The bill as it’s drafted does a bizarre and alarming end run around normal legislative or even agency rule-making processes,” explains Pfefferkorn, giving the attorney general “the keys for deciding what rules apply on the Internet.”
If government is allowed to screen all messages en masse, they’ll be able to outlaw encryption: it will get in their way. If service providers can be compelled to screen all messages according to a government ruleset, the costs borne may easily be passed on to users in an otherwise free service. If the government can legally hold a service provider responsible for the content of messages sent by others, the only service providers left will be those in lockstep with government surveillance. And you and I will pay for those services with both our money and our silence—we’ll be too afraid to say what we think.
The inmates are starting to run the asylum. The lunacy doesn’t run along party lines, but along government fault lines. If you and I refuse to take encryption seriously by refusing to take matters into our own hands, we can expect lunatics like Barr to permanently bar our right to speak. Thugs like Clinton & Trump, Graham, Blumenthal and Barr are fine with you and I living in a world like that, but I’m not.
I hope you’re not either.