At music and film conference “South by Southwest” in Austin, Texas, President Obama was asked to comment on encryption and smartphone security. His response was lengthy, detailed and unscripted. Conspicuous by its absence was any mention of the primary objection to the argument that government should have the ability to penetrate any device: that if the government has that ability, anyone else can also have that ability. Anyone from hostile governments, competing businesses to criminals in search of information which will expose people to the threat of identity theft or the exposure of intimate photographs or messages.
The tech communities message is not “you know what, either we have strong perfect encryption or else it’s big brother and orwellian world” as President Obama puts it, it is “if you don’t want any unauthorized person to access your smartphone, your only choice is to not build a weakness into its security”. This is indeed one of the absolutes that Obama insists we mustn’t bring to this discussion but it is not the tech community that is taking an absolute perspective on this, it is reality that presents us with an absolute, to wit: you cannot teach a smartphone to distinguish between an FBI agent with a warrant and a malefactor who wants to post your intimate photos on your facebook page.
Once the weakness in the devices security has been introduced, anyone can use it. Anyone at all. FBI agents with warrants, police officers without warrants, agents of unfriendly nations, competing businessmen, identity thieves or garden variety pornographers with a financial incentive to expose your most intimate photographs and communications to complete strangers.
We use our smartphone for an ever increasing range of activities and carry the devices, usually with GPS tracking enabled, everywhere we go. We do our banking, we chat with friends and acquaintances and flirt with our romantic interests. This means that these devices contain information of interest not just to FBI agents with warrants, but to an array of far less lawful persons with considerably less oversight or constraints.
Even assuming our smartphones can be turned into black boxes without doors or any way in, information is vulnerable to intercept going into those black boxes and going out. Our telecommunications provider can tell the government who we called, when and for how long we spoke with them and where we were when we did so. The FBI has demonstrated the ability to penetrate the security even of persons using the strong encryption based web browser TOR and even technically savvy persons frequently make mistakes which can result in their communications being compromised. The possibility of peoples communications “going dark” is a fantasy peddled by those with a vested interest in ease of access to those communications. That’s the absolute that President Obama refuses to acknowledge in his own argument; that we must surrender the security of our smartphones or law enforcement will be powerless to disrupt terrorist attacks.