Very thought provoking letter from a developer who was producing a privacy ensuring email and communication system, who later backtracked and shut down his project because of what he believed could be unleashed.
While we tend to focus on the lack of transparency available in the electronic mediums of communication we use every day, the opposite is also a potentiality. If I have something hidden in my house and am suspected of a crime, law enforcement can get a warrant and legally and physically gain access to investigate. If encryption was good enough, it is possible that they would never be able to unlock hidden secrets, no matter how dire the situation or clear that there was a legal reason to do so. We (this developer, really) could create a system that ensures that information cannot be decrypted. By creating this, would we be enabling terrorists or others to avoid all of the actions we take to try and stop them?
However, what is right here? Are we to fear what we can create? It gets back to the basic question of whether we value security or privacy more, and how much of one we are willing to trade to get the other. I tend to believe in the Mill-ian let no idea go unsaid as it strengthens our ability to see the truth, either by being the truth, or providing a point of argument to strengthen our own conception of what is right. Stopping free speech inherently dulls this search for truth. And I believe similarly for technological progress – by creating deeper and deeper ways to encrypt information, we also create the incentive to figure out how to break that encryption. If we limit the technological goals that we pursue too dramatically, we risk having the skills to get us there atrophy. (Kind of like when we abandoned the Saturn V…)
On a similar but unrelated note, I’ve often thought about how the internet could fragment due to some of these pressures. As the US and others lose control over the web’s governance (perhaps rightfully so after we have demonstrated our inability to be benevolent guardians of the web), and as it falls more under the dominion of powers looking to add more limits to its inherent functionality, will we see a rise of ‘parallel’ internets with different sets of rules? Imagine small communities networking themselves together to avoid being spied on by others, and rejecting this broader network we have created. It is kind of similar to what could be enabled by this enhanced privacy within the internet itself – just depends if they are separate whole networks or just shielded networks within networks.
We will have to see – there seems to be a lot of pressure to get away from the prying actions of others recently, both for privacy’s sake and otherwise. The internet is such a vehicle for democratization – just look at Bitcoin’s surge in the last few weeks…