Internet searches, cell phone calls, data stored in the cloud—these are all things many of us netizens take advantage of to make our lives easier.
That’s what technology executed correctly is supposed to do: improve the quality of life.
The Edward Snowden revelation of NSA cyber-spying, however, was a loud wake-up call.
If, as Thomas Jefferson said, “The government [we] elect is the government [we] deserve,” then this profound assault on our privacy is our fault. H.L. Mencken’s variation on this quotation says it more bluntly: “People deserve the government they get, and they deserve to get it good and hard.”
I don’t believe this, and I refuse to accept it. I never signed up for my government gobbling up private, personal information, and using it to spy indescriminately on people.
The vast majority of Americans are tax-paying, law-abiding citizens. This may be the government we elected, but it’s not the government we deserve, particularly if the result is a profound diminution of our personal freedom. But there it is.
A small step in the right direction
Count me, then, among people who applauded (well, figuratively) when Apple and Google said they would be delivering smartphone operating systems that would encrypt user data and make it unavailable even if the government asked the companies for it.
Look, I’m not naive. I understand that people who break the law will use iPhones and Android devices. They may very well store incriminating evidence on those devices.
However, it will now be difficult, if not impossible, for law enforcement to prosecute people based on data on their cell phones.
It seems to me that this is appropriate. Our devices are personal, and we ought to be the ones who determine who has access to them. It’s about freedom, the Fifth Amendment, and our right to avoid self-incrimination.
We’d like to help, but…
Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, companies are legally required to share data requested by the government.
Now Apple and Google have made those requests for users’ cellphone data moot. “We’d love to help you, and would if we could, but, sorry, no can do.”
Said Apple: “It’s not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8.”
Said Google: “For over three years Android has offered encryption, and keys are not stored off of the device, so they cannot be shared with law enforcement. As part of our next Android release, encryption will be enabled by default out of the box, so you won’t even have to think about turning it on.”
What has prompted Apple, followed by Google, to take these steps? Are the companies attempting to distance themselves from accusations that they collaborate with the government in collecting and analyzing user data?
Are they standing up for citizens and their right to privacy?
Or does it just make good business sense?
For its part, Apple has stated that the company “has never worked with any government agency from any country to create a ‘back door’ in any of our products or services.”
Google has been more cooperative with government data requests, according to the New York Times, even going so far as to create “online rooms” containing user data that the government would have indiscriminate access to.
Privacy is not about being above the law
In the scheme of things, encrypting cell phone data won’t enable us to reclaim our privacy, which has been eroded irretrievably.
FBI director James Comey, in response to Apple and Google’s actions, stated that they enable cell phone users “to place themselves above the law.”
If this makes law enforcement’s job of prosecuting the small percentage of the population who are criminals, it’s a small price to pay.
Continued Comey: “There will come a day—well it comes every day in this business—when it will matter a great, great deal to the lives of people of all kinds that we be able to with judicial authorization gain access to a kidnapper’s or a terrorist or a criminal’s device. I just want to make sure we have a good conversation in this country before that day comes. I’d hate to have people look at me and say, ‘Well how come you can’t save this kid, how come you can’t do this thing.'”
Hyperbole aside, it seems to me that the deck is already seriously stacked in favor of the government and law enforcement.
This development, this ability to maintain our personal information so only we can get access to it, is one small step toward reclaiming our privacy. And that’s a good thing.