Who's right on crypto: An American prosecutor or a Lebanese coder?

District attorney and encrypted chat app dev sound off on privacy

Meanwhile, in the real world

Likewise while Kobeissi's idealism is admirable in many respects, it is also painfully naïve. The fact is that government is not a singular mass, but an extremely complex interaction of different groups with different jobs.

The FBI is no more able to effect change in its country's foreign policy than small developers are able to change the policies of Google or Apple. You can bet there are no shortages of law enforcement personnel who sympathize with the difficulties and struggles of ordinary people in Middle Eastern countries, but their job is to track down criminals and lock them up.

It is not difficult to hold two seemingly opposing thoughts at the same time, and yet act in accordance with just one of them if that's what you get paid for and are trained to do.

You can bet that given the choice, the security services would much rather there be no one at all that was hell bent on bring death and destruction to innocent people. But when those people already exist, the rest of peaceful society is relying on the security services to find them and stop them before they turn up outside a music venue with AK-47s.

Commercial pressures

While these two views represent opposite, understandable, but flawed arguments, where we end up on encryption will come from a combination of policy and commercial pressures.

The fact is that the internet's ability to share information and code across the globe has created an environment fundamentally different from the past. Anyone can create an application that makes their communication secure over the internet. And there have been many hundreds of them in the past decade. But despite their existence, large numbers of people were not driven to use encrypted software because it was a little clunky and they didn't really see the point.

That all changed when Edward Snowden revealed the depth of mass surveillance undertaken by the US government in particular, but also the UK government. Suddenly people started to look at things a little differently; the demand for secure communications rocketed, secure apps and software became more user-friendly. Safe, secure messaging is now a 20-second download away.

Aside from the fact that the big tech companies were not excited about the fact that the NSA had tapped their own data centers, it quickly became clear that millions of customers would head for the exit unless something more was done to protect their data.

The app economy that has made Apple a global force could easily push the giant back into its old hardware box if the apps end up becoming more important than the operating system. Tech companies are extremely wary about becoming complacent because it only takes the emergence of the new Facebook to become the old MySpace.

Likewise, Apple, Google, and other technology companies that don't like the idea of their products being used to put people in jail, or worse, would much rather not be responsible for safeguarding the highly personal information of their millions of users. If a software update puts them out of the equation without impacting their bottom line, you're not going to find many vice presidents arguing against it.

Enter the politicians

And that's where the balancing force of politics will soon come into play. Politicians have become increasingly vocal about their desire to see what's inside people's communications, especially when many of their nightmares came true on the streets of Paris.

From the tech companies' perspectives, the cat is well and truly out of the bag. Any efforts that force them to introduce backdoors represent a significant commercial risk.

They don't want to be talking about cold-blooded murders or child molesters so they are pointing to the mathematic realities of encryption. They argue it is "magical thinking" to imagine you can have a hole that only the right people can access.

But then this is not exactly the first time that compromises over clean code have been made to get regulatory approval or build a large customer base. In fact, it is hard to think of a single example where technology has not been bent to accommodate commercial or political pressures, either internal or external. Companies that don't bend with the wind end up failing.

Which is why politicians are now furiously trying to move the needle back to where they were most comfortable: secret access to huge amounts of information.

It remains to be seen whether that pressure will prove sufficient to force tech companies to backtrack on their effort to stay out of the way altogether, and introduce systems that again put them in a position of privileged access. Expect to see a lot more about encryption in the coming months.

As to where we all end up: that will depend on whose arguments you found the most persuasive: the American prosecutor or the Lebanese coder? ®

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