Encryption debate proves technology is not magic

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”—Arthur C. Clarke

For centuries, science fiction writers have thrilled audiences with their visions of the future. Now technology companies deliver their own vision through new products and services. Technology is often promoted as a sudden arrival from the future, rather than an accumulation of research and development over time. No effort is made to explain how a new gadget works, the physical and digital mechanisms behind its functions. Without this explanation, consumers and policymakers are apt to view technology simply as magic with limitless capabilities. In reality, innovations build incrementally on what has come before—they do not perform miracles. Ignorance of how technology develops and functions will lead to poor policy decisions.

Lessons from the Apple-FBI case

Evidence of this comes from the recent debate over encryption. In March, the FBI announced that a third party had bypassed security on an Apple iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino mass shooters. This ended the legal dispute over Apple’s refusal to help the FBI gain access to the phone, despite a court order.  Meanwhile, a bill co-sponsored by Senators Diane Feinstein and Richard Burr, the Compliance with Court Orders Act of 2016, would compel companies to provide technical assistance to obtain data for any court order. The FBI already tried to force Apple’s compliance with the far-reaching All Writs Act; Feinstein-Burr could face similar legal challenges if enacted. If third-party assistance proved to be a quicker solution than a court battle, then it will also be quicker than legislation.

This turn of events is puzzling given that no group holds a monopoly on encryption technology. Methods of encryption have existed for nearly as long as there has been communication, and while encryption technology has changed over time, the principles behind it remain the same. Increasingly sophisticated codes are used to hide the meaning of communication from all except its intended recipient, and increasingly sophisticated methods are employed to break those codes. Each new development makes it more difficult for non-experts to understand how the technology functions, leaving policymakers and the public in the dark. Meanwhile, policymakers act on their incomplete information in ways that only prolong the encryption debate.

Experts and everyone else

A lack of understanding concentrates power among technology experts, who make increasingly consequential decisions when designing new products. Apple did not consult law enforcement officials when deciding to strengthen encryption on their devices; they acted on customer demand for better device security. Newer devices and updated operating systems will feature greater security, setting up a repeat of the showdown over encryption in perpetuity. A law or court decision on encryption would work for a period of time until the underlying technology advanced once again. The Apple-FBI case and Feinstein-Burr view encryption as a static obstacle to be surmounted rather than a constantly evolving technology.

Fortunately, it is not necessary to make everyone an expert on encryption to demystify the surrounding debate. Instead, policymakers and the public must shift from thinking about encryption as a discrete product to thinking about it as a continuous process. The rate of technological change typically surpasses the ability of policymakers to create and update regulations, but recognizing perpetual change would allow policymakers to anticipate new developments instead of always reacting to them. Forward-looking policies on encryption would also reduce the temptation to fixate on how it is used today. Technology is not magic, so we should not assume it can solve every problem in the present. For encryption, the future will arrive soon enough.