Government debate over encryption has veered into fully stupid territory. Expert testimony at a Congressional hearing on encryption blamed Apple and Google’s privacy systems for allowing perverts to get away with secretly photographing vaginas and posting the pictures online.
When Apple and Google debuted bulked-up encryption for websites last year, the FBI complained that this automatic encryption would be a boon for criminals. The DOJ insisted that it could kill a child! Today’s testimony, meant to help the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform assess encryption, chugged along a similarly twisty train of thought. This time, encryption critics trotted out child molester and freaky panty pervert doomsday scenarios to support the argument that people should not be able to secure their phones.
District Attorney David Conley warned that encryption will enable people taking “upskirt” photos to get away with posting surreptitious crotch shots. In the same testimony, Conley blamed encryption for potentially destroying cases against child abusers and people who pimp out children for sex.
Of course, the idea that encryption makes it harder to collect evidence is true. However, there are many salient reasons why people want to use encryption, just as there are many reasons people put locks on their doors. It’s a digital safeguard that protects us from criminals, snoops, creeps, and undue government surveillance.
Yes, of course, if police get a warrant, they can search a house or a closet or an iPhone in accordance with the Fourth Amendment. That doesn’t mean a suspect has to unlock their doors for the police — or their phones. It doesn’t mean we should build cars without locks to make it easier for police to search them.
The Fifth Amendment, which gives suspects the right to remain silent, means people suspected of a crime don’t have to say a damn thing that’ll help police gather evidence against them. That includes not having to tell an officer where the hide-a-key is hidden so they can root through your apartment. It also includes not having to write down your private encryption key so they can read your Gmail. It even includes not having to type in a passcode on your phone.
“I don’t believe that Apple or Google set out to design an encryption system to protect human traffickers, but this is the result,” Conley said as he urged the companies to provide ways for law enforcement to penetrate encryption. “This isn’t rhetoric, this thing is reality.”
No, this is rhetoric, and it’s empty and sensationalist. Lots of things make it inconvenient for police to collect evidence. It would be easier if they didn’t have to obtain warrants at all! And it’d be even easier if they could force suspects to self-incriminate. The law isn’t designed to make it a super chill process to gather evidence. It’s designed to protect citizens — and Apple and Google’s encryption is designed to protect users.
This isn’t to say that everyone in the government agrees with these dubious arguments. Some are even willing to make 1990s SNL references to convey their skepticism. “It’s impossible to build a backdoor for just the good guys,” Rep. Chaffetz (R-Ut.) said as the chairman of the hearing. “If somebody at the Genius Bar could figure it out, so could the nefarious folks in a van down by the river.”
Plenty of other House members were equally skeptical of the hysterical scenarios presented. “Creating a technological backdoor just for good guys is technologically stupid,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.).
Saying that encryption makes it harder to collect evidence is a soggy, disingenuous argument, and will lead to effectively dismantling our digital locks with a backdoor key. These arguments wouldn’t hold a thimble of water if they were about weakening a physical lock. Imagine a hearing on whether or not police should hold skeleton keys that unlocked all our houses! People should have the ability to keep their phones as secure as their homes, with sturdy locks. And while that will make it less convenient for police to break in, it’ll also prevent crime by making it harder for anyone else to as well.
It’s good that so many House members looked critically at this sort of ludicrous testimony, but at this point, you have to wonder why Congress keeps choosing hysterical witnesses like Conley at all.
Image by Michael Hession