The People’s Encryption.

(Vital Update: Check out my comment at the bottom for some very important info on this post.)

OK, remember that post I wrote not long ago: On the issue of privacy and protecting civil liberties? That got reprinted by Steganos security software site? (“Sheesh, you never freakin’ let us forget!”) Seems I have some people much smarter than me to support my claim that everyone should be using encryption in their ordinary, day-to-day lives:

Written by “Mark Chu-Carroll (aka MarkCC) is a PhD Computer Scientist, who works for Google as a Software Engineer,” his article very succinctly explains how in this police state of the free and fascism of the brave (my words, not his) the best defense is to make encryption ubiquitous and not hidden:

The solution to this is to make encryption much more common, so that it’s no longer so rare that it raises a flag. In the novel, Cory wimped out, and had his protagonist’s best friend be the chief programmer at the most popular ISP in the city, and had them change the ISPs code in a way that transparently made everyone’s computers encrypt all of the traffic going onto the network. In real life, it’s not so easy. Technosavvy folks can’t wave a magic wand and make people start encrypting their data.
What we can do is start encrypting our data, and when we teach people to use computers, just set them up so that they’re using encryption. Set up your parents macintosh to use FileVault. Set up your windows box to use an encrypted filesystem. Use PGP. Put passwords on your important documents. Just make the little bit of effort to use reasonable encryption on a routine basis.

Remember that this article is in response to the fact that the DHS at the U.S. borders is actively seizing laptops, cell phones, USB keys, digital cameras, to have the data copied and analyzed and stored–without warrant or even probable causes or reasonable suspicion! (In gross and crass violation of the 4th Amendment, yet until the case gets to the Supreme Court, the government’s going to keep doing it). But that’s not even close to the limit, it’s barely the beginning.

Check out this video in which Stanford Law professor and technology critic, Lawrence Lessig, describes the coming “i-Patriot Act”:

(Source: Silicon Valley Watcher article. Full video here.)

One concern about the thought of having your laptop encrypted, and seized, is that when you’re “asked” for your access password, if you refuse you’ll be arrested. Technically, that’s not a concern although in reality it may be:

While the non-suspicion-based seizing of personal data has yet to reach the Supreme Court (and that may take a while), the concept of being forced to turn over passwords to law enforcement has already been through the high courts, and the result is still confusing at best. I’m not a legal scholar by any means, but from what I can tell if the state does not know of any specific criminal files on a device, then you can rightfully refuse to provide a password under 5th Amendment protection. (Although, if they do know for a fact already that you have, say, an illegal copy of Prince’s “Let’s Get Crazy” on your computer, you may not have any protection and may be compelled to provide the password to access the file.)

In other words, if your laptop is seized at the border in a random data seizure, or even if you looked like a dirty terrahist but that’s all the “evidence” they have to take your device, you can not be compelled to provide the decryption password that would unlock your laptop. Now, can you be arrested for refusing? Technically, no. But I can bet a cop or DHS agent will easily find another five things to arrest and hold you on, even if they’re later dropped. And I can’t imagine being arrested is a fun adventure in any stretch of the imagination. So, it’s easy to see why people would be reticent to do anything that might make them stand out and cause any trouble–and that’s exactly how the state likes it! They want the people to be afraid of arrest, no matter how innocent they may be, and thus complacent with any violations of civil liberties they can think of perpetuating. All in the name of Security!

And so, that’s the point I made earlier and MarkCC makes: if data encryption were to become so common, so everyday, that 99% of those who use it have nothing more to hide than their credit card information, family photos, and chicken pot pie recipes, the DHS will be less willing to wantonly seize innocent citizen’s property at their whim, turning us all into prisoners of our own country. Will this make us less safe, not allowing the police to do whatever they like in the name of keeping us safe? I seriously doubt it. The fallacy of false positives shows that if there’s any flaw in the accuracy of those arrested and accused of crimes, (and c’mon, we all know innocent people are arrested and even convicted more than rarely) then the number of innocent people initially accused and arrested can easily be larger than those who are guilty. That’s a concept the founding fathers knew about (although more in practice as the British were arresting and convicting innocent people for any made up crime in order to maintain control and fear), and so set up our justice system to favor occasionally letting the guilty go if it meant increasing the likelihood an innocent would not be convicted.

In any case, it’s a matter of principle, so long as we want to actually live in a free country which believes in liberty:

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
–Benjamin Franklin, 1755