Stories about government and law enforcement surveillance activities that have enraged privacy advocates and citizens of various countries are nothing new, yet the first volley of return fire from the technology industry has reignited debate over the issue. New encryption technologies and default settings in the latest mobile operating systems from Apple and Google now encrypt most phone contents by default, and lack any sort of “back door” that governments, or even the manufacturers themselves, can use to access content on the phone. Law enforcement has come out strongly against the measures, going so far as to suggest that children would die as a direct result of criminals using these technologies to cover their tracks. In the nightmare scenario, police would be unable to access a key message or photograph that could lead them to a missing child before their abductor committed a series of atrocities culminating in the death of the child.
Before unveiling these new encryption capabilities, Apple, Google, and other technology companies were stung by accusations that they happily aided governments and law enforcement, turning over users’ email, pictures, and other data in response to routine court orders, and even allowing governments direct connections to their data centers, enabling unrestrained snooping into users’ activities and data. The companies that have been accused of cozy relations with law enforcement and government claim that consumers are demanding these protections, and that instead of government stooges, the Facebooks, Microsofts, Googles, and Apples of the world are soldiers on the front lines of protecting individual privacy.
But will children die?
Apple executives called the DOJ “dead child” scenario inflammatory, but to support its case, law enforcement has rolled out a litany of cases where access to information garnered through high-tech snooping has put criminals behind bars. Several of these examples have indeed brought real-life child molesters and murders to justice, seemingly lending credence to the admonitions of law enforcement.
However, this appeal applies to nearly any public safety measure, even the most draconian. If every citizen of the Unites States, or any other country, were subject to 24 hour monitoring, or personally escorted about their business at all times by an armed police officer, we could likely eliminate child abuse, murder, abductions and all manner of unsavory crimes overnight. Less extreme measures like banning bicycles, or allowing police searches of vehicles to ensure properly installed car seats would likely save more children than allowing universal government surveillance and access capabilities to smartphone data, but every society must draw a line on the level of intrusion and oversight it will tolerate in the name of public safety.
Drawing the line
This obviously seems callous when there are heart-wrenching examples of incidents where government spying and intervention could have saved lives. There are well-reasoned arguments that universal government surveillance and extra-judicial powers could have prevented major terrorist incidents like 9/11, and if one of my family members fell victim to such a tragedy, I’d be more than willing to forgo encrypting pictures of my family vacation in order to prevent nefarious actors from using the same technologies to plot their next bloodbath.
What is inexcusable however is that governments have been performing these actions, and equipping even local law enforcement with technologies that can access the most intimate details of our lives without informing their citizens or engaging in public debate around the appropriate use of these technologies. Even the most upstanding citizen likely has items on his or her phone that could be interpreted as incriminating, or at least unsavory. As citizens, we need to discuss and debate whether any entity, be it national, international, or local, should possess such powers, and if they are provided, what constraints, checks, and balances govern their use.
Aside from the overblown and logically fallacious, but factually true argument that encryption will kill children, and the self-congratulatory rhetoric coming from Silicon Valley’s newly-appointed freedom fighters, perhaps the biggest tragedy of this debate is that our privacy, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement are being debated and molded by government actors and Fortune 500 technology executives, rather than the citizens these decisions affect.