When discussions by or about young children take place in the clear, collected and indexed by Google and Facebook (and worse), we invite devastating attacks against their future ability to live as free thinking adults. Instead of banning the mathematics of cryptography, we need to consider how to heal our nation.
Having been born in 1982, I grew up at just such a time as to have clear memories of the American lifestyle before the internet became ubiquitous. My kid (pictured above with other NuCypher family friends), now four, won't know that environment, but will certainly bear and reap the costs and benefits of today's decision-making regarding privacy, and specifically end-to-end encryption.
Just three months ago, Google was fined $170 million after being caught profiling young children.
Let's be honest: does anybody think that this action (for which the FTC and the New York Attorney General's Office deserve modest praise) will end this phenomenon?
My experience is that today's parents of young children - and I'm talking about the people you meet when you get involved in things like preschool, playgroups, neighborhood activities, etc. - are keenly aware that information about our children is being vacuumed up and stored for later use and indexing. It is a pervasive concern, and one that has driven parents to be one of the constituent groups seeking end-to-end encryption in the first place.
If we fail to take action now, we risk a world in which unsavory actors - domestic and foreign - have built rich, comprehensive profiles for every one of our children, following the trajectories of their education, home life, consumer habits, health, and on and on. These profiles will then be used to manipulate their behavior not only as consumers, but as voters and participants in all those corners of society which, in order for freedom and justice to prevail, require instead that these kids mature into functional, free-thinking adults.
The summoning of the mental image of the shadowy child predator, cloaking himself in end-to-end encryption, is a bizarre effort to cast this technology as some sort of dark information superalley. This childish logic, depressingly employed by the Attorney General of the United States in a letter to a prominent American company, is a highly concentrated toxin in the well of discussion of how best to facilitate the emergence of new technologies. This letter betrays a deep deficiency in spirit, fortitude, and genuine concern about the real predators on the internet, whose business models of spying and manipulation depend on unecnrypted, unsafe communications media.
It barely needs to be stated, but the idea that a backdoor can be created which allows "legitimate" access to government but which prevents access by other actors (or illegitimate access by governments) is preposterous.
When Barr calls on us to "enable law enforcement to obtain lawful access to content in a readable and usable format", he indulges a bidirectional delusion; such a configuration will neither prevent criminals from using genuine end-to-end encrypted media which lack this flaw, nor will such a backdoor remain confined to such "legitimate" use. History - and common sense - convincingly show that these backdoors invariably find their way into the toolchains of the very predators against whom we most need to guard our communications. And, uncomfortable as this topic may be to ponder, parents must also consider that some of these predators will be wearing the colors of the state, exploiting this backdoor in its native habitat.
So where does this leave us? In contrast to fear and contrived outrage, I find it helpful to quietly consider the inevitabilities of the internet - those future happenings which we will be powerless to stop or even delay, but to which we can formulate a response: either accepting, thoughtful, and mature, or childish, reactionary, and tantrumatic.
One such inevitability is this: easy-to-use end-to-end encrypted communication, transiting a decentralized network so as to be undetectable and uncensorable, is coming.
By asking us to build a cheap plastic wall in an effort to resist this tide - and invoking our children's security as the impetus for doing it - the Attorney General has unambiguously signaled that the genuine concerns of children of the information age are not presently within the scope of deliberation at the Department of Justice.
While the decision of which policies and positions to take in response to end-to-end encryption won't cause or prevent its arrival - which will happen in any case - it will determine whether its development, deployment, and delivery are conducted by people like us - patriots who hold our head high and readily appear in public to tout our discoveries and implementations - or be driven underground, engineered in secret with the cultural flavors of the very criminal underworld from which the Attorney General purports to being trying to protect us.
Moreover, the case for development and teaching privacy preserving technologies and methods to today's kids is far stronger and more reasonable than hoping against hope that predators aren't able to use encryption in the unlikely event that a few large companies remove it from their offerings. End-to-end encryption is a crucial tool for parents seeking to keep their kids' beginning-of-life data out of the hands of organizations whose only purpose is to use it against them.
The United States today - as evinced sharply but not exclusively by our politics and leaders - are in need of deep, lasting, sincere healing and maturity. One of the surest ways to forbear that healing and maturity is to bury the head of our body politic in the sandy shores of a sort of neverland, with Uncle Sam typecast as the petulant child refusing to grow up and accept the realities of evolution - in this case, evolution of mathematics, cryptography, and a connected society of adults and children.
Remember: the apocryphal ostrich who buries its head in the sand only thinks it can't be seen; it makes precisely the same mistake that we do when we plan our kids' daily routines in plaintext on servers owned by advertisers and snooped by states.
We must view our exercises of engineering not (or at least not only) as acts of invention, but of a sort of midwifery. The emergence of novel cryptographic primitives is a part of the mathematical birth of the connected human, and like all birth, it brings with it tumult and anxiety.
But like the wellspring of liberty, that cornerstone of American political theology understood as an endowment from a creator, the hard work of facilitating what cryptography wishes to emerge from the mathematics of this universe (perhaps to some, another endowment from that same creator) is an act of patriotism.
Whatever fears we may have about how end-to-end encryption will be used, a just society (and especially those specifically tasked with establishing justice in that society) will not prescribe the forbiddance of mathematics, but the acceptance of healing.
This is not to say that there aren't evils in the world, and that the perpetrators of those evils won't try to hide any way they can. However, each of the evils that might make us jump to resist the natural flow of mathematical discovery shows a wound in our society, and in each case, the path to healing is reasonably obvious even if difficult and costly.
For example, in the face of terrorism, we must ask our foreign policy architects, and those whom they've abused unto a state of blowback, how they might be healed so as to stop the harm they visit upon the world stage.
In the face of child abuse, we must similarly ask those who abuse children how they might be healed and prevent others from adopting their proclivities. That children might live in fear of predation is a commentary on our values and ways; to react as though the perpetrator is instead a set of mathematical principles is an affront to the victims.
For every societal ill, there is a cheap and wrongheaded avenue by which mathematics and nature can be blamed. The more difficult and more elusive undertaking of healing and restoring the good in evil men (and they are so often men) invariably yields a more real and lasting reward, and does it without asking society to deny its children the benefits of mathematical discovery.
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