Why I disagree with Obama on the Encryption Debate
I greatly admire and respect Barrack Obama. But not because he is the first Afro-American US president, though this is certainly worthy given the history of race relations in that nation. I also do not admire him as he is from an island nation, nor for the commonly shared traits of our personal lives. My mother, as Obamas mother, traveled to a foreign country and incorporated herself into it. Rather, I admire Barrack Obama because he is what might be termed as a cultured person: he is aware of complex social nuances of many issues. I have never been more directly impressed by a politician than the manner in which he behaved during one of his visits to Puerto Rico; he stands in sharp contrast to Donald Trump, who might be appropriately characterized as a bull in a china shop.
However, viewing some of his comments at the SXSW 2016 event in Austin Texas, I disagree with his stance, and believe he is sorely mistaken on this one. These are complex issues, and I wanted to take some time to explain why, providing arguments that are different from those what were expressed during the Apple hearings recently in Washington DC, with hopes that this could further clarify the issue. I am not a technologist; I am not a lawyer, but rather I would like to talk as a historian with some experiences in the field of technology, as well as someone who has had some direct personal experience with political / corporate repression.
Obama is certainly correct in the sense that these are complex issues which should not be seen absolutely. Thinking about the issue the other day, I am reminded by the case of the man who sequestered a young girl for some 15 yearskeeping her in a dungeon of sorts, and even going so far as to having a family with her. The notion of absolute privacy can certainly lead to worst case scenarios as these, and it is certainly the justice systems duty to prevent and resolve such cases. That poor girl lost not only her innocence, but much of her adult life, personally affecting her in unimaginable ways: her personally, her social ties, the possibility of an autonomous life. Principles, in this case of privacy, are never wholly absolute, nor should they necessarily be.
However, it does seem to be the case that the current generation has not fully internalized the the true complexity of technology. In other words, Obama nor James Comey in my persona opinion do not seem to be fully aware of the totality of complex nuances created by the new digital era, and it is here where they naturally error more specifically view these issues from the older generation point of view.
Think of the following scenario, if you will. Prior to the digital era, private communications tended to be physical: one needed to have direct access to telephone land lines or to physical metal cabinets full of folders and documentation. After all, no complex human activity can occur without some written record given the natural limitations of the human mind, by definition. As a result, the confiscation of such physical entities meant that direct evidence could be obtained providing the character, means, and ultimately the intent of complex social activitiesin this case criminal.
Under such circumstances, information could be easily controlled. There was, after all, generally only one document pertaining to x, y, z event; while one could make copies, there is still a substantial cost to the generation and maintenance of this information. While one could duplicate entire cabinets, its cost was generally prohibitive, and hence only selected documents from the totality of available pages would be copiedthose most relevant to prove a particular case.
In other words, under the old scenario, government agencies could physically obtain information, and given that it was in a physical state, could relatively easily control access to such information. The documents were kept in one of the many federal buildings, closely watched under lock and key.
Consider now, if you will, our new digital era. The cost per unit of information is so low, that entire catalogues can be easily and endlessly copied, and stores in such small containers. The cases of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are testaments to this; they copied vast amounts of information, and were able to safely transfer these out without ever being directly detected by their supervisors. Manning used empty music CDs, and Snowden encrypted folders. These two cases are the most obvious evidence that we really live in a new complex information age, and have not yet come to terms with what such an era social entails.
It is clear that Obama and Comeys argumentation is based on the old world model: the world of 8 x 11 inch paper documents, manila folders, and metal cabinets, rather than the digital era of now terabyte drives, mini SD cards with 200 gigabytes the size of a finger nail, and the nearly ubiquitous presence of networks, either by line (ethernet) or air (WiFi).
Both Obama and Comey incorrectly believe they are requesting a collection of documents, what they are actually requesting (in old world terms) is that all the locks, doors, metal safes, etc that contain this physical information be made vulnerable and accessible. In other words, one possible source of cognitive error is that both men do not realize they are making an argument of class rather than of specific cases. They do not seem to be fully cognizant of the implications the granting of access to documents. However, we need not look to far again to immediately see what this would implyparticularly with Windows OS computers.
There can be no doubt that the prevalence of DDOS attacksone of the worst kind of attack there can existis the direct byproduct of Microsofts eagerness to comply with such government demands. As the Snowden document reveals, the Windows platform was one of the first to acquiesce to NSA requests, and we cannot whitewash Bill Gates first reactions to the FBI-Apple case when he said that the company would ultimately have to give in to the federal government. (It is clear that any technology company which publicly states this will immediately lose marekt share, as they would be immediately revoking the implicit social contract which exists between such firms and the consumers which obtain their goods.) The vast number of computer bots that are controlled by DDOS networks are the direct byproduct of these policies: vulnerable computers subject to external hacking.
Perhaps the question we should be asking ourself is why there is so much emphasis given to communications, and specifically, the cellular phone? Are there alternatives to these means that could resolve such issues, without basic violation of US civil rights?
The overuse of technological fixes to the justice is problematic simply because of the ever present existence of corruption in institutionsbe they public or private. Government agencies are not made of knights in shining armour but rather are composed of a heterogeneous mix of do gooders and evil doers. There can be no doubt as to the personal and moral integrity of both Obama and Comey, as is usually the case with such predominant public figures. However, to claim that the the totality of individuals which serve under their complex bureaucracies also share their moral character is a bit of a stretch of the imagination. Corrupt individuals in these bureaucracies have been brought to trial on a number of occasions, and it is equally certainly the case that not all such individuals are always caught. This is not to say that there are cultures of corruptions in these institutions, but rather than their very size and social complexity makes it very difficult to insure their homogeneity.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this complex topic to point out is that communications is not the only way to fix a problem. It might be the easiest and most convenient, but it is not the only feature of complex social international relations.
If we look at the predominant fear of terrorism in the United States, we might ask the simple question what are its causes. The constant intervention of the United States in the Middle East is obviously a predominant cause, but not the only one. After all, nobody likes for their nation to be invaded and be wantonly disrupted by more powerful foreign entities. How many regime changes have western nations imposed on the Middle East? How many assassinations have been committed by drone attacks; how many significant social disruptions can be attributed to Western Powers desperately seeking Middle Easter petroleum?
There is no doubt in my mind that if the US were to make a substantial push from petroleum based technologies to renewable ones, the direct terrorist threat to the US would be greatly diminished. If modern industrial economies had no need for petroleumand instead were to base their productive activity on renewable sources energythe geopolitical tension between the two regions would be greatly reduced. All nations in principle have a right to sovereignty, but the unequal distribution of natural products in the world places great political pressure on Western nations to guarantee such inputs, critical ingredients to their well oiled economies. This is not a critique but simply a statement of fact.
To conclude, Barrack Obama and James Comey are wrong because their suggested policies would introduce too many vulnerabilities, and fail to creatively find alternative long-term solutions to their existing dilemmas. I agree with Obama in the sense that these are complex issues, but I do not believe that he has fully internalized the true extent and nature of this complexity into his social policy.
This, however, is not really his job but rather than of academics.