President Barack Obama was asked about the encryption fight, as personified by the legal fight between the FBI and Apple, and his response is an excellent example of what happens when political will clashes with technology reality.
The president made his comments at South by Southwest (SxSW), where he did a panel with Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith. You can watch that panel in its entirety below. Note that there are 32 minutes of wait at the beginning—skip ahead accordingly. Also note that the interview covers much more than just this one issue and it's worth the watch.
I strongly disagree with the president on this issue, but his comments offered me a moment of clarity that might be worth exploring.
People with strong opinions on the subject of privacy, encryption, and law enforcement come down in four camps that I can identify.
Camp 1: People who believe that the government has no business snooping into our digital stuff, ever, so yay encryption!
Camp 2: People who believe encryption is necessary to protect ourselves from legions of malicious actors on the global stage, and understand that encryption is binary. You either have unbreakable encryption or you have pointless encryption.
Camp 3: People who believe that privacy is important, but believe it is equally (or more) important for law enforcement to be able to get information through a lawful warrant. This camp believes a compromise with the tech world should be reached, suggesting they don't grasp the above-mentioned binary nature of encryption.
Camp 4: People who are pro law-enforcement and pro-national security as viewed through a lens where the binary aspect of encryption is irrelevant. For many members of this camp, if encryption is binary then it's got to go, because nothing is more important than law-enforcement and the subset of national security that is our good guys tracking down the bad guys.
Obviously individuals will have some overlap, and I don't mean for my little list to be some kind of absolute classification. But I believe strongly that understanding people who disagree with you is key to having conversations, and recognizing where someone is coming from is a key component to understanding them.
Me, I'm in Camp 2. I fancy Apple CEO Tim Cook is in that camp, as well, as is former CIA and NSA Director General Michael Hayden. Encryption experts that I've studied over the years appear to be in this camp, too.
Representatives Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) are likely in Camp 4, based on their public comments.
President Obama and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates appear to be in Camp 3. I'd guess that FBI Director James Comey is in that camp, as well.
Next: The President's Stance and Why He's Wrong
Page 2 - The President's Stance and Why He's Wrong
Let's look at what President Obama said at SxSW. Here are a couple of quotes taken from the interview by Juli Clover at MacRumors:
The question we have to ask is, if technologically it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system where the encryption is so strong there's no key, there's no door, at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot? What mechanisms do we have available to even do simple things like tax enforcement if in fact you can't crack that at all. If the government can't get in, everyone is walking around with a swiss bank account in their pocket.
There has to be some concession to the need to get that information somehow. Folks who are on the encryption side will argue that any key whatsoever, even if it starts off directed at one device, could end up being used on every device. That's just the nature of these systems. That is a technical question. I am not a software engineer. It is technically true, but it can be overstated.
My conclusion so far is that you cannot take an absolutist view on this. So if your argument is strong encryption no matter what, and we can and should, in fact, create black boxes, that I think does not strike the kind of balance that we have lived with for 200, 300 years and it is fetishizing our phones above every other value. That can't be the right answer.
I suspect that the answer is going to come down to how do we create a system where the encryption is as strong as possible, the key is as secure as possible, is accessible by the smallest number of people possible for a subset of issues that we agree are important.
President Obama at South by Southwest Interactive
I wrote earlier this week a piece pointing out that a state of total surveillance is what's new, not an unbreakable box. I argued that practical limitations on what the state was able to do worked with the judicial and warrant system we have enjoyed for those past 200-300 (230) years mentioned by President Obama.
With the ability to track and see and read and hear almost everything we do, having some limitations on where the government can watch us would be restoring a balance, not imposing an unprecedented hindrance on law enforcement.
And when it comes to having a country that is secure from hackers, terrorist and foreign agents out to steal our identities, bank accounts, photographs, and other data, protection from those malicious actors goes hand in hand with limitations on government access.
This is because encryption is binary. We either have it or we don't. The president is completely wrong when he says we shouldn't have an absolutist view on this because it is an absolute issue. We are either protected from the bad guys and the good guys or we are protected from none.
The president wants to find a compromise where none is possible, as does the FBI. This must be born of the belief that such a compromise is possible, that we can be secure from the bad guys while offering the government a backdoor into our devices.
But we can't.
Which is what happens when political will clashes with technology reality. Good intentions, noble goals, and high ideals can't wish an impossible thing into being.