Absolutely, there is a bug

It was a terribly wrong turn my father steered me on as he encouraged my interest in computers. I can say that with confidence, now that I’ve bounced out of the high technology field three times and landed hard on my ass each time. It’s simply not the right field for me.

But I did learn something about technology and I keep something of a hand in by hosting my own web sites, email, and other services to the maximum extent I can manage. One of the more important lessons is that there are patterns of thought applicable with computers that are not applicable elsewhere; in my personal experience, the sequential and binary logic intensely needed for programming was incompatible with normal human conversations with normal human beings. I lasted about six years before burning out and I’ve heard this is typical: Programmers need to be promoted to higher-level positions to remain productive; instead, I wound up out on my ass.

That experience, however, offers a little insight into the current debate—to the very limited extent it’s really even a debate—over privacy versus security. Most famously, this appears with the Edward Snowden revelations about National Security Agency doings.[1] More recently, it has appeared in a case where the Federal Bureau of Investigation has sought to compel Apple to break the security on an iPhone belonging to a mass shooter in San Bernardino.[2] And now, President Barack Obama has weighed in opposing “an absolutist view” that would favor unbreakable encryption.[3]

So if your argument is strong encryption, no matter what, and we can and should, in fact, create black boxes, then that I think does not strike the kind of balance that we have lived with for 200, 300 years.

And it’s fetishizing our phones above every other value. And that can’t be the right answer.[4]

In the social sciences, we don’t much like binary thinking. We immediately suspect a false dichotomy, which is fallacious when it forecloses other possibilities. In feminist theory, it’s even considered sexist because so many of these dichotomies are between “good” and “evil,” “rich” and “poor,” right” and “wrong,” “Black” and “white,” and so on and on, all historically aligning with male and female.[5] Plato was even more explicit, associating mind and the intellect with men while associating body, earth, and sensuality with women.[6] Elizabeth Minnich rejects the label “dualism” for this kind of thinking because in these pairings, one is always superior to the other. She calls them hierarchically invidious monisms.[7]

But computers are very much about binary contingencies. At a machine level, it all ultimately comes down to zeros and ones, trues and falses, and decisions made accordingly. Even so-called “fuzzy logic” must, at some level, be implemented using those binaries. And if you don’t like this, blame transistors, because that’s what they do.

Which brings us to Obama’s foolishness about “absolutism.”

Obama said government shouldn’t be able to “just willy nilly” access smartphones that are full of very personal data. But at the same time, while asserting that he’s “way on the civil liberties side,” Obama said “there has to be some concession” to be able to get the information in certain cases.

“I am not interested in overthrowing the values that have made us an exceptional and great nation simply for expediency,” Obama added. “But the dangers are real. Maintaining law and order and a civilized society is important. Protecting our kids is important.”[8]

And that’s just it: True and false conditions don’t allow for “certain cases” in the way that Obama means them. Either there is a “back door” or other security vulnerability allowing access to what should be secure devices or there isn’t (and very much more often than not, there is). As Apple has attempted to argue in resisting the FBI demands to access that smartphone and as the technology industry has attempted to argue more generally, once a vulnerability exists, it exists, whether so-called “good guys” (the U.S. government) or so-called “bad guys” (for example, the Chinese or Russian governments) are exploiting it. There is no in between. Obama can cite history until he’s blue in the face, but a transistor is a transistor and very rich and powerful players, often protected by state sovereignty, are locked in a sort of escalation with cryptographers and security researchers, one side trying to break security and the other trying to build it up.

And a not even very much more nuanced reading of history would also question our arbitrary labeling of some actors as “good” and others as “evil.” Is the U.S. government indeed always good? Of course not. Is the Russian government always evil, just because it’s on the opposite side of a renewed cold war with the West? No, because these are false dichotomies, while the binary at the heart of a central processing unit is a true one.

There is an additional reason the Obama administration should be concerned for protecting individual security: Hillary Clinton’s email server controversy. Apart from nasty questions about whether Clinton was seeking to evade accountability and transparency requirements, whether she was attempting to facilitate conflicts of interest with the Clinton Foundation, whether 2,093 “confidential” or “secret” emails and 22 “top secret” emails found on her private server should have been retroactively classified or treated as classified at the time, and whether or not she should broke the law and should be prosecuted,[9] there is a larger truth that Clinton, like everyone else, needs secure communication. That she happens to have been secretary of state, and that her emails should have been “presumptively classified,”[10] is really beside the point because Internet communication is only as secure as the weakest link. Clinton needed secure access; she may have been reckless in setting up her own server in her own house, but I have to be skeptical of any imagination that a server is secure just because it’s in a fortified government building. At the end of the day, and because most important security software is developed outside the auspices of government and often even outside the auspices of private enterprise, we all have to have access to the security that she needed so that she can have it.

And Obama and FBI Director James Comey are simply delusional when they think it can work any other way.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “N.S.A. scandal timeline,” December 17, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2013/11/07/nsa-scandal-timeline
  2. [2]Cory Bennett and Julian Hattem, “Comey’s FBI makes waves,” Hill, March 9, 2016, http://thehill.com/policy/cybersecurity/272290-comeys-fbi-makes-waves
  3. [3]Darlene Superville, “In debate over encryption, Obama says ‘dangers are real,'” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, March 12, 2016, http://www.startribune.com/in-debate-over-encryption-obama-says-dangers-are-real/371869181/
  4. [4]Barack Obama, quoted in Darlene Superville, “In debate over encryption, Obama says ‘dangers are real,'” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, March 12, 2016, http://www.startribune.com/in-debate-over-encryption-obama-says-dangers-are-real/371869181/
  5. [5]Lorraine Code, What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1991).
  6. [6]Jack Holland, Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006); Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Harmony, 1991).
  7. [7]Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, Transforming Knowledge, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2005).
  8. [8]Darlene Superville, “In debate over encryption, Obama says ‘dangers are real,'” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, March 12, 2016, http://www.startribune.com/in-debate-over-encryption-obama-says-dangers-are-real/371869181/
  9. [9]Rachael Bade, “FBI steps up interviews in Clinton email probe,” Politico, November 10, 2015, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/11/hillary-clinton-email-fbi-probe-215630; Rachael Bade and Josh Gerstein, “Hillary Clinton camp: Email ‘thumb drive is secure’,” Politico, July 30, 2015, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/07/hillary-clinton-email-thumbdrive-security-120833.html; Bill Curry, “This is why Hillary’s losing: The issue Jeb Bush and Donald Trump understand, which may keep Clinton from the White House,” Salon, July 26, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/07/26/this_is_why_hillarys_losing_the_issue_jeb_bush_and_donald_trump_understand_which_may_keep_clinton_from_the_white_house/; Ken Dilanian, “Investigators found classified information in Clinton’s email, but what does that mean?,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, July 31, 2015, http://www.startribune.com/what-s-considered-classified-is-a-judgment-call/320244911/; Josh Gerstein, “Intelligence agencies say 2 Clinton emails were ‘top secret,’ but one is no longer,” Politico, December 15, 2015, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/12/hillary-clinton-emails-top-secret-216802; Josh Gerstein and Nick Gass, “Clinton’s email woes deepen as classified messages pile up,” Politico, September 30, 2015, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/09/hillary-clinton-email-state-department-release-214246; Evan Halper, “Federal investigators want Justice Department probe of Hillary Clinton emails,” Los Angeles Times, July 25, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-clinton-email-20150724-story.html; Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger, “Clinton, on her private server, wrote 104 emails the government says are classified,” Washington Post, March 5, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/clinton-on-her-private-server-wrote-104-emails-the-government-says-are-classified/2016/03/05/11e2ee06-dbd6-11e5-81ae-7491b9b9e7df_story.html; Rosalind S. Helderman, Tom Hamburger, and Carol D. Leonnig, “Tech company: No indication that Clinton’s e-mail server was ‘wiped’,” Washington Post, September 13, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/tech-company-no-indication-that-clintons-e-mail-server-was-wiped/2015/09/12/10c8ce52-58c6-11e5-abe9-27d53f250b11_story.html; Mark Hensch, “Poll: Majority believe Clinton lied about emails,” Hill, August 14, 2015, http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/251192-poll-most-think-clinton-knowingly-lied-about-emails; Annie Karni, “Allies fault Hillary Clinton’s response on emails,” Politico, August 19, 2015, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/08/allies-fault-hillary-clinton-response-on-emails-121509.html; Anita Kumar, Marisa Taylor, and Greg Gordon, “‘Top Secret’ emails found as Clinton probe expands to key aides,” McClatchy, August 11, 2015, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/national/article30714762.html?rh=1; Kimberley A. Strassel, “Hillary’s Other Server Scandal,” Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/hillarys-other-server-scandal-1457653794; Trevor Timm, “Sorry, Hillary Clinton fans: her email errors are definitely newsworthy,” Guardian, August 1, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/01/hillary-clinton-email-errors-newsworthy; Jonathan Turley, “Clinton: ‘Pretty Clear’ No Emails Were Classified Despite Contrary Findings Of Inspector General,” July 26, 2015, http://jonathanturley.org/2015/07/26/clinton-pretty-clear-no-emails-were-classified-despite-contrary-findings-of-inspector-general/; Jonathan Turley, “The State Department Flags More Than 300 Clinton Emails As Possibly Classified,” August 18, 2015, http://jonathanturley.org/2015/08/18/the-state-department-flags-more-than-300-clinton-emails-as-possibly-classified/; Wall Street Journal, “Clinton’s Email Jeopardy,” March 4, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/clintons-email-jeopardy-1457136207
  10. [10]Jonathan Turley, “Clinton: ‘Pretty Clear’ No Emails Were Classified Despite Contrary Findings Of Inspector General,” July 26, 2015, http://jonathanturley.org/2015/07/26/clinton-pretty-clear-no-emails-were-classified-despite-contrary-findings-of-inspector-general/; Jonathan Turley, “The State Department Flags More Than 300 Clinton Emails As Possibly Classified,” August 18, 2015, http://jonathanturley.org/2015/08/18/the-state-department-flags-more-than-300-clinton-emails-as-possibly-classified/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.