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Encryption: It’s time to get serious about personal privacy

| Monday, October 31, 2016

Hackers are out there; people who want your information are out there and they are willing to do what they can to get into your personal devices to retrieve such information and use it against you. Those texts to your ex-boyfriend/girlfriend? Public. Those not-so-in-good-taste photos? Public. Those personal secrets you’ve kept just between you and a few friends and family? Not so secret anymore. That potentially incriminating conversation or browser history? Evidence to be used against you the moment you slip up.

There’s a common misconception that usually goes something like “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.” This might be comforting, if only people weren’t ready to pounce on every new piece of information, gobbling it up like a starving animal on the side of the road waiting for some innocent creature to make a misstep. This phrase is typically associated with government stepping in, obtaining information about its citizens, supposedly for the sake of protection. This is not such a simple topic, and evokes the currently very prominent question regarding the balance between security and privacy. And, in this current age, much of this privacy revolves around our personal computers, and the main line of defense against such invasions of privacy is encryption, a subject many people are very much, to quote the FBI’s James Comey, in the dark about.

There are several events we can turn to in order to see this dilemma play out. One of the most prominent was the issue regarding a specific iPhone retrieved from the San Bernardino shooter last year. This phone could contain information which would prove useful in prosecution, information that the FBI could use for security’s sake; however, the FBI could not access the phone because of current encryption technology on the phone. In vain, they asked Apple to give them a way to access such information. The arguments for such a way in go something like: Given a warrant, law enforcement is able to access any physical location, such as someone’s house or car, etc., so why should they not be allowed access to all of someone’s information on their devices? Or, if it’s for the sake of security, surely the government should be granted access to this information. These are fairly reasonable arguments, but short-sighted.

The problem, however, is that there’s no easy way to allow this. Creating such a so-called “backdoor” into one device is not the end of it. To create such a thing, technology companies need to alter their code or create alternative code which grants access. This is a problem. Every computer doesn’t run different code; our phones run a limited number of operating systems which means that access to one phone, or allowing infinite passcode attempts for one phone, means that same software could be used to gain access to any of the phones running the same operating system. This means that the overall security of the device for everyone is compromised, not just the person of interest. Are we OK with that? Would you want some guy on the side of the street to have read all of your messages? Do you want some company to mine your data and sell it without your knowledge or consent?

One may have nothing to hide, but that doesn’t mean they want everything so easily accessible such that their entire English class has read it just like another book. Physical security is important, but so is protection for everyone’s personal information so that they don’t become exploited or fall victim to other very imminent crimes. That’s why it’s important that encryption, a method of protecting your information, be not only allowed, but encouraged.

You know that iPhone you haven’t updated since you bought it? How about that update screen that you keep saying “Remind me tomorrow” to? Perhaps, it’s a good idea to go ahead and let it update. Security features may not be as glamorous as that pretty new font Apple keeps changing, or that sweet new background image of each iOS version, but they are important features. I don’t think the world is ready for all of your emoji stories, your snapchats, your private conversations or your photo library, so let’s for everyone’s sake keep them private and protected.

Jonathan Baker


Oct. 29

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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