The latest Snowden revelations out from the New York Times and the Guardian make for compelling reading; at the same time, they’re not the least bit surprising.
They’re compelling insofar as they outline just how successful the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ have been in compromising and circumventing the cryptographic standards behind most of the Internet. By a mix of computing power, legalistic coercion, and old-fashioned infiltration, they have manage either to get access to trusted certificates that unlock encrypted communications or to work backdoors into the key algorithms and hardware underpinning secure communications online, from email to financial transactions. Whether this will be bad for the future of the internet, broadly speaking, is an interesting question for debate. Will legitimate international businesses start to avoid American and British telecom hardware manufacturers and software vendors? Maybe, or maybe not; we’ll probably soon find out.But this news shouldn’t have been surprising to anybody who has been paying attention. Via Meadia
has always wondered why so many people were so smug about encryption; we always assumed that people, and especially governments, would try very hard to do something about it. After all, to encrypt something is to flag it as at least potentially worth knowing. Savvier internet users have always treated internet traffic the same way they have treated the post: Always assume it isn’t secure.This story has elicited gnashing of teeth and rending of garments among some of the more idealistic members of the tech community about the betrayal of a certain kind of ideal that the internet represented. Some people seem to have thought cyberspace was a virtual Garden of Eden, evidently oblivious to the fact that the same forces that are shaping the rest of human social life are at work on the web (if anything, they’re working even faster
on the web). These people failed to understand that technology doesn’t so much change human nature as empower it, for both good and evil. For those who are genuinely shocked, shocked
that there is gambling at Rick’s, or that states do in cyberspace what they have always done in meatspace, this story should serve as a wake up call. Being an Internet denizen doesn’t mean you’ve got a magic pass that lets you escape from the logic of history.All that said, we’re not smugly calling for everyone to passively accept the status quo,
that this is the way things have to be. In a way, naive Internet utopian thought has given states opportunities and incentives to pursue surveillance and infiltration techniques with even less restraint than they would have otherwise. But now there’s no excuse for ignorance anymore (not that there ever was much to begin with). It’s clear that American society needs to move much more intentionally and creatively to extend our basic approach to life onto the internet. That concept is “ordered liberty.” The internet can’t be a jungle, where anything goes, but we don’t want it to be a police state either. We have 200 plus years of historical experience of balancing the demands of liberty and the demands of order. That’s
the experience we must now draw on to ensure that the internet continues to be something that expands rather than limits the realm of human freedom.