Decrypting the Encryption Battle

President Barack Obama became the first president to address the annual technology and music festival, South by South West (SXSW), in Austin, Texas. Without mentioning the FBI’s battle with Apple over access to an encrypted i-Phone, his attempt at “healing the rift” between the tech industry and the government fell more than flat and he came off as being dismissive of the public’s concerns about privacy.

He said he could not directly comment on the battle between Apple and the FBI.

“I am way on the civil liberties side of this thing. I anguish a lot over the decisions we make to keep this country safe and do not want to overthrow the values that made our country safe simply for expediency,” Obama said. “But if everybody goes to their respective corners and says ‘it’s either perfect encryption or a big Orwellian world’, then after something bad happens politics will swing into action and it will become sloppy and rushed through Congress in ways that are not thought through.” [..]

Obama said the government had engaged the tech community “aggressively” over the issue and concluded: “Fetishising our phones above every other value … this notion that our data is different and can be walled off I think is incorrect.”

He also claimed that Edward Snowden’s revelations had “vastly overstated” the dangers of spying, insisting that US intelligence agencies are “scrupulous” and that some of the excesses of agencies highlighted by Snowden have been fixed.

Former chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Representative Daryll Issa (R-CA), a former chairman of the Consumer Electronics Association, disagreed with the president, siding with Apple. He told USA Today that the president came off as “tone deaf” further said:

“There’s just no way to create a special key for government that couldn’t also be taken advantage of by the Russians, the Chinese, or others who want access to the sensitive information we all carry in our pockets everyday.”

It’s nor surprising that Issa would disagree with Obama but surprising that he said what most, on the left and right, agree.

If you don’t really understand the complexity of the battle between the FBI and Apple, John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” comes to the rescue to decrypt the fight over encryption and our right to privacy.

“You may not think about encryption much, but it is pretty fundamental to all our lives,” Oliver explained. “Encryption can protect the things most important to us — our financial information, health records, dick pics, trade secrets, classified government records, dick pics, our physical location, the physical location of our dicks, credit card information, dick pics, and pictures of our dicks.”

“While it can keep us safe … encryption also has a downside. It’s become so ubiquitous that it’s making it impossible for law enforcement to gain certain information,” he continued, citing the recent very public dispute between Apple CEO Tim Cook and the U.S. Justice Department regarding a “backdoor” solution to one of the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone’s encryption function.

Cook called such a workaround “the software equivalent of cancer.”

“To be clear, Apple hasn’t been entirely uncooperative,” Oliver said. “But they are refusing to create the ‘cancerous’ program the FBI wants, not because it can’t be done — they say it would take six to ten engineers up to four weeks to do it. Or, you know, a standard Genius Bar appointment.”

President Obama needs to listen to John.