Encryption

I want to be absolutely clear that we have never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will.

– Tim Cook
Apple.com/Privacy

Encryption is an issue on which both american liberals and conservatives should find consensus. Sadly, the consensus among political leaders on both sides of the aisle seems to be that encryption is dangerous, and should Not Be Allowed.

On the contrary, no government should make any laws concerning encryption but should be happy to have private companies and organizations pouring time and money into creating ever-stronger encryption methods. Encryption isn’t just for criminals and terrorists: if you use email you use encryption (at least when you connect to your webmail login), if you use a bank you use encryption, if you have a password on your wifi network you use encryption, if you have an iPhone or iPad you use encryption. Anytime you see a small lock in the address bar of a website you’re using encryption. Why? Because encryption helps ensure that:

  • you are communicating with whom you intend to communicate
  • nobody else is listening in

There’s nothing wrong with those, I think any reasonable person would recognize them as goods.

For the sake of this argument, let’s assume for a moment that we all completely trust our own American government and don’t mind them listening in. Great. What about advertisers? Insurance companies? The media? Your neighbors? Your employer? Criminals? Foreign governments? Once you break encryption, it’s broken for everyone. This isn’t a technical issue that we’ll get over with better hardware or software, it is a fundamental to the whole idea of locking something. Weakening encryption “for law enforcement” or “in emergencies” means weakening encryption for everyone, always. There is no way around that fact.

But this is all an argument from practicality. Let’s look at it from a more slightly more principled perspective, or two.

A Brief Liberal Case for Encryption

American liberals love “privacy rights”. It was “privacy” which legalized Abortion. It was “privacy” which decriminalized sodomy. Surely, if the government can’t violate the privacy of individuals to save the lives of unborn babies, it can not violate it to save the lives of anyone else either. After all, “equality” is a favorite “right” of American Liberals too.

A Brief Conservative Case for Encryption

American conservatives love “limited government”. Handing the government a key to every bit of your life is a terrible way to limit power. Just as a conservative gun “rights” advocate would argue that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, the conservative encryption “rights” advocate might argue that “encryption doesn’t enable terrorists, terrorists enable terrorists”. Encryption is a tool, the vast majority of people and organizations use it for good, and the ones who use it for evil will do so regardless of its legality. Taking away legal encryption from the rest of us will only weaken all of us.1

I think the conservative case is actually much easier to make, and more well founded. Oddly, most american conservatives seem to oppose encryption while your average american liberal generally supports it. Regardless, from Obama to Bush, Sanders to Trump, and nearly everyone in-between, our politicians aren’t fans of encryption.

They should be. Imagine what we’d find if they weren’t protected by encryption.


  1. “Legal” encryption because even if laws were passed banning or limiting encryption, I suspect that vast numbers of people would continue to use it. It would be impossible to enforce completely, and the rest of the world would continue developing strong encryption.