Come back King Canute, all is forgiven

You will remember that King Canute held a demonstration in which he showed his courtiers that he did not have the power to hold back the tide.

Senior officials in Washington desperately need courtiers who will show them, with equal force, that encryption has the same sort of property. If it’s done right, encrypted material can’t be decrypted by fiat. And any backdoor to the encryption process can’t be made available only to the good guys.

The current story about Apple and the encrypted phone used by one of the San Bernadino terrorists is not helping to make this issue any clearer to government, largely because the media coverage is so muddled that nobody could be blamed for missing the point.

The basic facts seem to be these: the phone is encrypted, the FBI have been trying to get in to it for some time, and there’s no way for anyone, Apple included, to burn through the encryption without the password. This is all as it was designed to be.

The FBI is now asking Apple to alter the access control software so that, for example, the ten-try limit on password guesses is disabled. Apple is refusing on two grounds. First, this amounts to the government compelling them to construct something, a form of conscription that is illegal (presumably the FBI could contract with Apple to build the required software but presumably Apple has no appetite for this).

Second, Apple argues that the existence proof of such a construct would make it impossible for them to resist the same request from other governments, where the intent might be less benign. This is an interesting argument. On the one hand, if they can build it now, they can build it then, and nobody’s claiming that the required construct is impossible. On the other hand, there’s no question that being able to do something in the abstract is psychologically quite different from having done it.

But it does seem as if Apple is using its refusal as a marketing tool for its high-mindedness and pro-privacy stance. Public opinion might have an effect if only the public could work out what the issues are — but the media have such a tenuous grasp that every story I saw today guaranteed greater levels of confusion.

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