Month: October 2019

Writing 05: Privacy vs Security

In class this week, we explored the trade-off that sometimes is necessary between individual privacy and national security. Nowhere else was this better shown than the case between Apple and the FBI about unlocking the phone of a San Bernardino shooter, and the debate that we had in class about Apple and the FBI afterward. The FBI had obtained an iPhone from the site of the shooting, but could not unlock the iPhone so tried to compel Apple to weaken the passcode features on the iPhone through the All Writs Act of 1789. Specifically, the FBI wanted Apple to remove the limit on number of attempts and the delay after incorrect attempts, while adding the ability to use software to input the passcode attempts instead of by hand. Apple refused, implying that creating an iPhone with these alterations was dangerous, and a slippery slope towards mass surveillance by the government.

Going into the class, I was one of the many students who marked Apple as the correct party in the debate, as I held that personal privacy is an essential right that cannot be infringed upon. But, I think I was slightly misinformed when I came into the room. I had conflated the government’s desire to install a backdoor for their use only in communication software (like Attorney General Barr was speaking about) with their goal to unlock this specific iPhone. I still believe that a government backdoor in communication software is wrong, spying on citizens and creating vulnerabilities that everyone, not just the government, will exploit. Especially since mass surveillance of citizens has been shown to be ineffective at preventing crime. But in the specific case of the Bernardino shooter, where one of several shooters in a mass shooting had a locked phone that could hold information that would help prevent future attacks, and the “backdoor” requested for one single physical phone after they had obtained a warrant, I believe that the FBI is actually correct. I did not realize that the nature of their request was for one single phone, not the actual software. For Apple to fear monger by claiming this software they made would somehow be released into the wider world to break into your phone is ludicrous, since they simply could have unlocked the one single phone using the already existing genius bar technology and then handing it to the FBI, without any exchange of company software.

In any case, this was one specific case that involves investigation of a a physical phone, as opposed to a larger more general government desire for information in cyberspace. While in Russia or China companies cooperate with the government and hand over the personal information and communications of their customers, the USA is “sitting in the dark”, comparatively. End-to-End encryption makes it so only the sender and recipient can see a message, allowing for total privacy. Which sounds great, until you realize it is also utilized by human trafficking organizations and terrorist organizations to avoid detection by law enforcement. I do not know how to navigate this specific issue, to be honest. I will not cede my right to privacy, so I cannot stand for the government intentionally creating backdoors in computer security, but I also cannot just ignore the problems that arise from total privacy. Perhaps one day there might actually exist some “reasonable security”, but in the current world any attempt to create that is really just creating vulnerabilities.

Writing04: Whistleblowing

Whistleblowing seems to be a hard choice that is often looked down upon. Whistleblowers used to be derisively referred to as “muckrakers”, implying that all they did was sift through muck, looking for an issue to disgust the public while not providing any solutions to the problem they expose. I believe this term does a disservice to those who act as whistleblowers. As Roger Boisjoly said, “[whistleblowing] destroyed my career, my life, everything else.” Clearly whistleblowing is not done for glory or public approval when it is about so dire a topic. What good then is whistleblowing, if it will destroy your life? I think the answer can be found right in the name. You blow into a whistle not just to create a harsh, shrill sound that grabs peoples’ attention, but also to notify them of something urgent. The public has a right and a need to be informed about crimes and injustice, even if that information comes with a price.

Despite the necessity of whistleblowing, it is a huge and hard decision to make. Each one of the whistleblowers we read about this week reflected and agonized over the decision to come forward with the critical information. They understood that sharing such information can destroy your life. Was revealing the hidden information really worth that? What obligation do they hold to the public, that warrants such self-sacrifice? I do not know if I could make the same decision, if I knew the consequences that would follow. And when you blow the whistle, how much information are you going to share? In some instances, like exposing a cover-up of a safety issue in a car, whistleblowing is easily justified. But when it bleeds into the gray area, whenever you have the choice to leak sensitive government information, does the same justification remain? How much of a right does the government have to secrecy, if any? Revealing classified information can harm government officials and agents, but if it exposes criminal overreaches would it not also hold those people accountable? I think there is a lot of consideration that must be had about what information should be shared, but ultimately I believe if you witness the government’s hidden abuses of power, you should reveal the information.

I think the most important reason to blow the whistle, to expose the truth and put your neck on the line, is the hope for a better future. The only way to stop hidden injustices to to shed the light of day upon them. There is no guarantee that revealing the hidden crimes of the government, corporation, or whatever will actually result in change. What if the public is uninterested or simply accepts the crime as an unfortunate reality? What if they care, but only for a week? Unfortunately, this can and has happened. But if we want to right the wrongs of the world and hold people accountable for their actions, the first step is to put the truth into the public domain. What is done with the information afterward is for the world to decide, but the chance for correction should be taken.