How do you find an excuse to read your citizens’ messages? You get Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, and YouTube together in a room repeatedly and slowly attempt to bash them into compliance with a bat made of non-disclosure agreements and coffee dates. Despite sounding much like the beginning of a rather dissatisfactory joke, this is genuinely the US Government’s technique involving odd mix of flirtation and aggression in order to get everybody to do one thing: decrypt their messages.
In one of the most ethically dubious and obscure meetings since the inception of the Bilderberg Group, most of Silicon Valley were summoned on Friday to the White House to think about how to ‘disrupt’ IS’s online message. This may not in itself seem olfactory until you understand the US Government’s actual definition of ‘disrupt’ is more disingenuous than Tory social policy. The agenda for the meeting is less than half a page long, but the sentiment of the hosts is far more telling. FBI director James Comey agreed only to attend Friday’s meeting on the condition that encryption was discussed with director of national intelligence James Clapper also expressing a similar opinion. Surveillance agencies in the US wish to eventually receive a decrypted ‘back-door’ entrance into the databases of major technology companies in order to read the private messages of the public.
The problem with the logic of this goal is twofold. Firstly, contrary to popular belief, the terrorists of today aren’t actually very prone to encrypting their messages in the first place – the Paris attackers used a mix of unencrypted SMS messages and Facebook in order to collude and plan the attacks – neither of which require the large scale decryption that the Government is now demanding. In fact, members of IS are just not very secretive people – they have a published magazine in which members frequently brag about their locations and intentions (the ringleader of the Paris attacks told the magazine in February that he was in France and that an attack was imminent) – this combined with the fact that the majority of terrorists who perform acts are already on governmental watch lists (the case for Boston and Paris in recent years) makes more of a case for better use of existing information rather than the removal of privacy from millions of innocent people.
Secondly, this isn’t just my opinion – it’s the opinion held by the White House Science and Technology Office, the Commerce Department as well as the Federal Trade Commission – in fact the only divisions of the US Government that are in favour of decryption are the FBI, CIA and the NSA, which are the same departments who have proven themselves time and time again to be the least skilled in technology. On the one hand we have Pulitzer Prize winning Ashkan Soltani as the Chief Technical Officer to the White House (in the Science and Technology Office) who was previously the Chief Technologist at the FTC, yet on the other hand we have James Comey, – a lawyer-turned-spy and Director of the FBI with no education in technological matters. As this case becomes almost farcical, the White House Science and Technology Office, the Commerce Department, and the FTC were all excluded from Friday’s meeting. That is to say the three bodies that would have actually been able to assess the practicality of any schemes proposed by the government were specifically uninvited.
If one looks at it objectively, the only people who are having secretive meetings hidden from the public is the US Government who held this meeting in secret, gave no real indication of the results of the meeting and slapped NDAs on all those present. For people pushing the clichéd tagline ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’, it seems that the government has a lot to hide and we all have a lot to fear. One mustn’t be fooled into believing that this is normal government procedure – the use of back-room deals is inexplicable as the government has legal procedures through which they are meant to interact with technology corporations and, rather unsurprisingly, Friday’s meeting does by no means follow the guidelines.
What is worrying is that by not following the legal guidelines set out for discussion there is a very real chance one might see a repeat of the extra-legal affair that was AT&T’s ‘productive partnership’ with the NSA that existed almost entirely in a legal grey area. Over the course of a decade, AT&T intercepted and released billions of their customers’ private emails, as well as a staggering 1.1 billion call-records as recently as 2011. In addition to this, between 2003, and 2013, they also provided ‘technical assistance’ in the wiretapping of the United Nations headquarters (read it here) – an act which seems harder to defend under the blanket justification of ‘terrorism prevention’ – being less to do with terrorism and more to do with a paranoid administration. We ought all to be concerned that one of the largest telecommunications corporations was able to conveniently abandon any sense of integrity once given funding that was double what the NSA spent on any other venture at the time.
The FBI and CIA are the highest-funded and most excitable parts of the US Government. Their logically non-sensical strategies post-9/11 lead to the FBI indoctrinating 175 mentally ill American-Muslims and actually creating more dangerous terrorists than were thought to have existed before the attacks by creating a counter-intuitive plethora of financial incentives (Read it here). Now, despite Kaspersky’s $1m research into the benefits of encryption, they continue to relentlessly champion its destruction, and much like their previous anti-terrorism strategies, this also makes little sense. There has been no suggestion by either surveillance authority as to exactly how, once granted backdoor access to Facebook, for example, they would decide which of the 1.2 billion users to read up on, or what course of action they would take upon discovering something concerning. It is key that we have equanimity at these times of global stress and avoid going down paths that may lead to grave injustices as a result of the effects of actions that disadvantage the very people we intended to protect.