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Tech’s Ethics: Encryption

Published 09/23/2019

We’ve seen previously how companies and governments use technology to erode people’s privacy and negatively impact day-to-day reality. But what about the impacts that people themselves have on others? It’s not all the fault of large organizations. Individuals can obviously have tremendously negative effects on our world as well. And technology has certainly helped them in their nefarious causes.

Ironically, the primary method to producing these deplorable acts by users is encryption, a technology idea whose original purpose was protecting privacy and freedom. But give people an inch and they take a mile (and then some) as we’ll soon see.

Messaging Platforms

Nobody wants to support terrorists. (Except for, I suppose, terrorists.) But there are numerous encrypted messaging services that are doing just that. Apps like Telegram are widely used by terrorist networks due to its inability to in any way monitor the communications going on between users.

In theory, this is a wonderful feature. Originally launched by a Russian brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, their stated goal was to find a way to get around the Russian government’s monitoring and control of its citizens. Open social networks were often scoured by Russian agencies, for example, to prevent dissent and to actively stop large demonstrations or protests. Unfortunately, as with so much of technology today, the unintended consequences have been dire.

There are a tremendous number of people out there who don’t want to be tracked. Terrorist organizations are the most example of exploitation of encryption technologies. But massive pedophile networks and organized crime have also leveraged encrypted messaging to hide their illegal and incredibly destructive activities. At some point the global community will have to have the very difficult discussion about how much freedom with regards to encrypted messaging in terms of how much terrible behavior encrypted messaging allows.

And governments around the world have started to have those discussions. The Australian government, for example, is actively pursuing legislation that will more tightly regulate encrypted messaging software in an effort to stop terrorism (as well as the sharing of pedophilic media and organized crime operations). But there is tremendous pushback from industry as can be seen in the 2015 case between Apple and the United States government. There, in the wake of a terrorist attack that claimed the lives of 15 people, Apple refused to help the FBI in its investigation, not granting that agency access to the perpetrators’ phones.

Should Apple be allowed to do that? What if intel could have been gathered from those devices that would have helped stop future terrorist attacks? How many people have to die before encrypted messaging software is reined in?

This is obviously a contentious debate, because privacy and freedom are so important for a functioning society. But in a world where absolute privacy and absolute freedom lead to so much destructive behavior, maybe curtailments of those principles need to be entertained. Surely, retroactive access at the very least should be made available so that future harm could be reduced. And, perhaps, even some proactive mechanisms should be implemented to actively combat illicit activities. Of course some freedom would have to be sacrificed, but that’s what it means to live in a civilized society.

Darknet Markets

Beyond simple messaging, there is, of course, an abundance of outlets on the dark web for illegal activities. There are online sites where you can purchase drugs, illegal firearms, and child pornography. There are forums dedicated to these things as well. Perhaps, one might argue, all of these things should simply be made legal and allow individuals to decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong. But are we truly ready for a world where all drugs are legal? All guns are legal? Do we really want child pornography to be legalized? I’m not sure anyone could argue for that.

And these darknet markets are thriving, despite the best efforts of world governments and police forces. And not surprisingly given how simple it is to find them. A simple search on the darknet reddit forum, access via the Tor browser, account creation, and payment via cryptocurrency, and you can order just about anything from the darknet. Is this acceptable? Should anyone be allowed to buy anything, the truly freest free market imaginable?

More than 80% of darknet traffic is directly related to child pornography, according to a study from the Department of Justice. (Not all Tor traffic, it should be noted, although that is a minor caveat being blown out of proportion by media outlets like Wired.) When you let people search for and consume whatever content they want to search for and consume, you quickly realize how dark the human mind is. And that’s why we have laws and regulations: to curb the darkest impulses of mankind.

Conclusion

Encrypted services bypass all oversight, from the local level to the international. And seeing how companies and governments have abused their power in the past, perhaps rightfully so. Maybe these corporations and bureaucracies are the real enemy, and insofar as a technology protects us from their tyrannical oversight, so much the better for the individual freedom of its users. But is all oversight bad?

It can’t be so, if you look at the consequences of such absolute freedom and autonomy. When encrypted services lead immediately to drug trafficking, orgnized crime, and child pornography, something must be fundamentally wrong with the technology itself. It’s clear that people need some sort of oversight. Not absolute oversight, as we discussed when talking about surveillance, but some oversight. Encryption technologies have no oversight by design, and they’ve led to the worst in people coming out. We can’t let technology companies decide for us what’s good for our world. We need to let them know what harm they’re causing and hold them to account.