The 8th International Conference on Cybersecurity has come and gone with little fanfare, and with it, any remaining pretense of federal law enforcement’s respect for privacy. In a stunningly banal speech, US Attorney General William Barr renewed the Justice Department’s calls for an end to encryption in the name of, wait for it, American security.
“The deployment of warrant-proof encryption is already imposing huge costs on society. It seriously degrades the ability of law enforcement to detect and prevent crime before it occurs, and after crimes are committed, it is thwarting law enforcement’s ability to identify those responsible or to successfully prosecute the guilty parties.”
Without any evidence of costs, Barr assures the Fordham University crowd that law enforcement will be effectively defeated by encryption. “If you remove any possibility that cops are going to be watching a neighborhood, the criminals already in the neighborhood are going to commit a lot more crimes.” The AG here is taking as much for granted about his audience as he is presupposing about American citizens. How many among us are merely undetected malefactors?
To deliver this speech amidst the greatest era of US mass incarceration requires either piercing tone-deafness or a profound personal cynicism. With 698 per 100,000 Americans in prison, mostly for victimless crimes, Barr believes there is a seemingly endless tide of criminals to be yanked up, root and stem.
But of course, this speech is not for the two-bit drug dealer, whose home’s next on the whiteboard for battering rams and flashbangs. The overtures are for the two most-favored flavors of fear-mongering meant for public consumption, cartels and terrorists.
For younger or less interested readers, for whom 9/11 is some platitude to be bandied about for the sake of patriotism or terrorism, I urge reexamination. September 11, 2001 serves as a fully-formed contemporary manifestation of government religiosity, a day of repentance, a turning point. Whereas American’s of old would pay lip service to the tenets of ethereal individual liberties, today they serve as burnt offerings to be sacrificed for security, each one a pleasing scent to the god of pragmatism.
Indelible human freedoms evidently no longer exist; the best and brightest among us have placed in their stead a carefully constructed existence of legal grants and permissions. Not even your text messages and search histories may remain unmolested. “There have been enough dogmatic pronouncements that lawful access simply cannot be done. It can be, and it must be”, Barr insisted. Amazingly, conflating dogma and basic arguments on constitutionalism earns none of the ire that Trump supporters reserve for Obama’s constant line-leaping.
The decree has been set forth, then. No longer interested in making a case, Barr is simply demanding obedience to our betters. Despite the best efforts of the legal apparatus and any willing participants in Silicon Valley, the reality is that technology is making that declaration moot. Encryption will always exist as long as internet use remains unimpeded by government, as technical ideologues will continue to crop up to fill the void.
So have hope. The trope of a homeland secured by rifles behind every blade of grass has been revolutionized. The first front of modernity is the binary code of zeroes and ones, trenches manned by internet pioneers and privacy advocates alike.