The great encryption debate: no end in sight

21 Dec 2015

Encryption arguments, both for and against, come and go in waves. When Apple’s CEO Tim Cook speaks on the topic, though, it’s often at a crest.

The issue of encryption is both terribly important and mindlessly trivial. On one side, you have tech companies and privacy advocates, espousing a secure way to send and receive content online. ‘This is none of your business’ they all figuratively yell at The Man.

On the other side, you have nosy governments wanting in on all your conversations, because security.

In between, as in many philosophically weighted arguments, you have everybody else. It is this ‘everybody else’, one would think, that is the vast majority, not encrypting their messaging, not too concerned either way.

Right and wrong

But that’s not to say right and wrong should be difficult to establish. Personal, digital privacy should be available to all, despite the take-up. Encryption, as we know it today, seems to be the best way to do this.

Encrypted messages are, in theory, owned by you and the person you send that message to. Nobody else. At the moment this is, according to Apple CEO Tim Cook, the only way to ensure personal privacy.

What’s important about this is not the trivial review of the latest Star Wars movie that you WhatsApp your friend. Rather, it’s the health information, business secrets and deeply personal interactions with loved ones that are truly private.

“You should have the ability to protect it,” said Cook when speaking on 60 Minutes, “and the only way we know how to do that is encrypt it.”

All about ability

‘Ability’ is a key word here as, like written above, not everybody cares. But the option should be there.

Not according to many governments, though, which would rather the ability to peer into all personal elements of your life. Often, this is to defend against terrorism, it seems. Though that could be construed as the excuse of today, quite easily.

For example, a few months ago, The Washington Post got its hands on an email sent by the CIA’s lawyer, Robert Pitt, which the news agency alleges said although “the legislative environment is very hostile today” towards ending mass encryption of online messaging, “it could turn in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement”.

There are currently advocates for both more and less encryption in the wake of the Paris attacks. Other calls to open up an already fairly open communications field have come in the past, although, granted, under less stressful situations. An excellent look at how relevant encryption is to terrorism can be found here.

Shut the back door

“There have been people who suggest we should have a backdoor,” said Cook of calls on smartphone manufacturers to let the US government – and, by extension, a few more – into their devices.

“But the reality is, if you put a back door in, that back door is for everybody, for good guys and bad guys. I don’t believe that the trade-off here is privacy versus national security. I think that’s an overly simplistic view. We’re America. We should have both.”

What is a battle at the moment will surely, one day, end. That is simply down to resources as states can fight far longer than companies.

You ask any cybersecurity expert and they will tell you the most advanced surveillance and hacking techniques online are state sponsored as they are the ones with more resources, be that labour, finance, tools or, indeed, long-term strategies.

How long until companies like Apple find that out?

Tim Cook image via Hadrian/Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic