When government leaders, politicians, propose that Apple build a backdoor into the iPhone for law enforcement, we write off their idea as ill-informed. So why do they persist?
A perfect example is this article: “Australia’s Attorney General Thinks He can Convince Apple Encryption Back Doors are Good.” By now, you’d think that well-informed, intelligent government leaders would have given up on the idea of accessing any smartphone, even a with a warrant, via a backdoor. Instead, the desire seems to have spread from the U.S. and the U.K., infecting other western democracies.
I think the first reaction is to conclude, in about 10 seconds, that the politicians are just dumb. But that’s the same shoot-from-the-hip thinking that we criticize them for. Instead, I want to explore why government leaders feel so deeply, in a flawed way, about their agenda.
Counting the Reasons
Here’s what I think is going on.
1. There’s a lack of fundamental training and aptitude in technical decisions. Many of us in the tech sphere have had 20 or 30 years of experience in government, military or enterprise even before we started writing about it. We’ve seen it all. We have college degrees that launched a technical career, and we fit new data and experiences into a broad and deep framework. Politicians, except for a notable few, don’t have that benefit.
2. There’s a limited understanding by politicians of consequences due to lack of experience. This is based on #1 above. Technical people have seen big programs both succeed and fail. They’ve learned to spot the earmarks of doomed, politically driven, shallow thinking. It’s far easier to visualize the likely outcomes based on that experience. Politicians can’t do it.
3. Again, derived from #1 is the inability to “Absorb and integrate.” Politicians lack a rich technical decision matrix. When new information and imperatives arrive, they have no foundation to weigh them against. They have what I call a zeroth-order level of understanding. That results in forced, rash, rationalized decisions, which brings up the next item on the list.
4. The shoot-from-the-hip decision approach has the aura of high intelligence. That looks good politically. In fact, these kinds of decisions almost always fail when the issue is complex, as they tend to be in modern technology.
The Nobel Prize winning psychologist Dr. Danny Kahneman described this faulty decision process in: “Thinking Fast and Slow.” In that book, he describes how our species, through evolution, is beautifully designed for instant decision making. (Noise in the bushes! Run now or get eaten.) It’s a survival instinct that worked for millions of years, but fails in a modern, complex, technical society in which it’s hard to deeply analyze consequences.
5. There is political expediency in solid law enforcement. Western governments see a certain legitimacy in the legality of warrants to, without limits, pursue information that may lead to solving a crime. But there are those who argue that there must be limits placed on the powers of the government, in the spirit of the U.S. Constitution.
The debate is ongoing about where The People want the line drawn in the sand.
6. The effect of peer pressure. Most high-level leaders, in the enterprise, have chief scientists. It’s someone they can depend on for solid advice. Politicians, in general, see senior technologists and scientists as having opposing motives and can’t be trusted with important political decisions.
With some exceptions, there’s generally no trusted insider with whom they can sit down, on an individual basis, have lunch, and diagnose the technical nuances with both political and technical astuteness. (Even the Vatican has a staff of Ph.D. scientists, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, to advise the Catholic Church on scientific issues.)
So when politicians chat with like-minded colleagues, they must conclude that their closed fraternity is correct in its thinking. It’s never wise to be politically ostracized. That leads to a loss of influence and power.
Sometimes I think that The Abilene Paradox also plays a role.
As a result, many politicians must depend on their own inexperience in technical matters. There is precious little time to study and evaluate. Worse, competing inputs and voices seem, and often are, self-serving. There is no greybeard to confide in and from whom to seek sophisticated, trusted technical counsel.
Solid or Shaky Ground?
For all these reasons, politicians believe they’re on solid law enforcement ground when it comes to demanding backdoors into iPhones. An attempt to persuade them otherwise is simply seen as self-serving by either people with ulterior motives or profit-motivated companies like Apple.
All the above issues pose continuing problems that our western culture must discuss, diagnose, and come to terms with. A dialog between governance and those governed is crucial.