Mises Wire

The Feds Want to Snoop on Your Encrypted Data. It's "for the Children."

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Technology exists that allows anyone to effectively hide from government’s prying eyes as long as they do some basic legwork.

The perennially awful US senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) is leading the charge on making sure Americans are denied that ability.

Governments Hate Encrypted Data

The most basic foundation of that is encryption, which uses math to prevent all but the sender and intended receiver from viewing the information in a message.

Graham, Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) have introduced the Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act, an antiencryption bill that effectively makes all encryption without a government back door illegal. Other similar bills exist. To follow such an order would spell the death of encryption.

US attorney general Bill Barr penned a letter in support of this, writing:

Warrant-proof encryption allows these criminals to operate with impunity. This is dangerous and unacceptable.

It’s not about “warrant-proof encryption.” There is no other kind of encryption. Any encryption protocol that has a so-called back door is not real encryption. It’s a black and white matter. Either an item is encrypted or it’s not. The reason that savvy users demand encryption is that they know that neither tech companies nor governments are to be trusted with honoring the confidentiality of communications.

Abolishing Privacy "for the Children"

Attempting to pull at the heartstrings, Barr drops this in his letter:

Survivors of child sexual abuse and their families have pleaded with technology companies to do more to prevent predators from exploiting their platforms to harm children.

Barr appears to echo Hillary Clinton’s It Takes A Village by claiming that it is your responsibility to keep other people's children safe by giving up your rights.

This is nothing new. Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore were national nanny state advocates in the 1990s who invoked defense of children in an effort to grow the state. The appearance of this “it takes a village”–style thinking is a popular tool for those seeking to grow government by substituting the state's judgement for the parent's judgment.

Certainly, lawmakers claim to be concerned that certain bad guys on the internet can use online platforms with criminal intent, but they are not nearly as concerned as most parents are for the safety of their own children. Moreover, the proper way to protect a child to from online predators is for the parent to turn off the computer and smartphone until an age when the child can safely handle them. For each child and family, that age would, of course, be different, because development does not track chronological age or follow a set path. Nor will every family have the same definition of what safety means in such a scenario.

This does not require an act of Congress. Nor does it require the abrogation of anyone else’s right to communicate with another adult without being snooped on by government. Such a right cannot logically be dependent on a stranger’s ability to safely raise a child.

The argument presented by the attorney general and senators desperately depends on outliers and edge cases in order to limit the rights of all. Never should anyone’s rights be limited by the edge cases for which a technology is used. The innocent are specifically not to be limited in any of their activity by any government.

Contrary to the notion of privacy, it is increasingly becoming commonplace to expect the citizenry to be thoroughly transparent about personal life, while the government may be entirely opaque about public life. This is an inversion of what "public" and "private" are supposed to mean.

The Real Problem (for Them) Is That Encryption Limits Government Power

This proposed bill is not about children at all. The real issue is that government has engaged in warrantless mass surveillance of Americans and mass electronic data collection for at least three decades. The increasing popularity of encryption apps is finally beginning to hamper that effort.

Edward Snowden writes:

The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your emails or your wife's phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.

I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things….I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.

Instead of being able to force its way in through the back door of an app, just like it can force its way in through the back door of a house, government is being put in a position where it is having to seek voluntary compliance from free people who can say no to governmental requests for data.

Of course, any situation where you can’t say no is not voluntary. Encryption has leveled the playing field against the overreach of American spy agencies, and encryption now places an important check on state power.  Indeed, rather than discussing ways to dispense with encryption, we should be noting that it is all the more vital for the individual to take the matter into his hands and protect his own data.

Even the most lowly individual, no matter how poorly resourced he is, can protect himself with encryption technology.

As government proves itself increasingly inept at protecting the individual, technology is offering the individual greater tools for protecting himself.

Although governments continue to insist "it's for the children," never should we go back to the dark ages of privacy before easy-to-use encryption. As customers, entrepreneurs, and investors we must continue to develop the powerful privacy technologies and the free market environment around them in response to the rapidly expanding human demand for privacy that government is dedicated to discouraging.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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