I’m a big fan of L. Gordon Crovitz’s weekly column in the Wall Street Journal (and not just because he is a board member of Dun & Bradstreet). Much of the time I find myself agreeing with him, but occasionally we are at odds. This week is one of those weeks.
In his column Terrorists Get A Phone Upgrade (It is behind a paywall), he argues against the recent stand by Silicon Valley firms to encrypt their devices to prevent governments from being able to see what is on them, even with a court order.
He starts out by describing the Najibullah Zazi case and how they caught him by tapping his email. I’m not sure what this has to do with encrypting our handheld devices, since email can be tapped at the destination (Yahoo! in this case) long before it is ever downloaded to a phone. The only think that you may need it for would be to prove that it was actually downloaded to the phone, but at this point I would assume that the real evidence (such as the explosives) would be enough to convict him.
He also brings up some of the fictitious scenarios that were argued by Deputy Attorney General James Cole about rescuing children by being able to access a criminals mobile device. This argument by Mr. Cole doesn’t hold up very well either. What information would you be able to get from the cell phone that wouldn’t already be available in the meta data?
Would Mr. Crovitz make the same argument against hard drive encryption of his laptop? Should the government be able to come in and decrypt his drive with (or without) a court order? We have seen that the government is more than willing to go after reporters who help whistleblowers (James Rosen anyone?), so how hard would it be for them to get a court order? Moveover, wouldn’t it be better if terrorists were using an encrypted phone that if they were using an encrypted laptop? At least with the encrypted phone you would have all the meta-data associated with it.
Personally, I’m in favor of as much protection of my information as possible. From the tone of the article, I assume (perhaps wrongly) that Mr. Crovitz feels that the encryption is OK so long as government can get to it with a court order. I think that I should be able to choose if I want what’s on my phone encrypted, just like I can choose to have what’s on my laptop encrypted. If you put a back door in for the government, it will eventually find it’s way out into the wild making nothing secure.