Going Dark

Or: I have nothing to hide, but I’m hiding it anyway

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” – The 4th amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The recent revelations that the US Government has been spying on its citizens has come as no surprise to me. As a technologist, I am familiar with what is possible and what is not. And the Snowden revelations have not only proven that the tinfoil-hat mob were right all along, but the extent to which they were correct surpassed even their wildest ravings.

The intelligence community have a hard job; to keep America safe from enemies foreign and domestic. Giving them the resources to store and search through Internet communications is not unreasonable. What is unreasonable is the lack of due accountability.

What pushed me to this point, however, was the saga of Ladar Levison of LavaBit, a Texas-based company that supplied secure-e-mail to its clients. Over the years, the FBI have presented warrants to obtain data on individual clients, and LavaBit has always complied. This is right and reasonable. But earlier this year, they demanded that LavaBit hand over their SSL keys – the same technology that banks use to safeguard out transactions online. This allows them to eavesdrop on all of LavaBit’s clients, whether under active investigation or not. After being compelled by a secret court to turn over the keys and legally bound to not tell anyone that he had done so. Ladar found himself in a dilemma; the service that he was selling to his clients was secrecy, but with the SSL keys in the hands of the government, he could no longer deliver on this promise. So he closed down the company – an act that has gotten him into even more trouble.

I have no problem with targeted surveillance; I appreciate that we need this for national security. What I have a problem with, however, is blanket surveillance – the collection of all information in case it is needed some day. There are three reasons for this:

  1. It’s impossible to build an Internet where the good guys can eavesdrop, and the bad guys cannot“. (Bruce Scheneier)
  2. It is obvious to me that “Search and seizure” occurs when the data (in this case) is collected – not when it is subsequently inspected. So collecting information and then requiring a warrant to query it is clearly wrong by this test.
  3. Since the average person commits three felonies a day, the collection of pervasive data is a boon to prosecutors, who can go back through our online histories and find evidence to charge us with any of a number of crimes and use that to pressure a person into “copping a plea” on a lesser charge.

The only check on “infinite surveillance” is the time-honored search warrant, issued by an independent court that requires a burden of proof or reasonable suspicion. In response, recent laws have established secret courts that issues warrants to search records. But the security community seem to think that this is too much to ask for. That they should have the right to search what they want, where they want, without limitation — and without having to ask for a judge for a warrant.

I have no problem with wiretapping. But I have a big problem with warrantless wiretapping.

The final straw was when the Director of National Intelligence told Congress that they were not spying on the American people. When the Snowden revelations put the lie to this, his excuse was “I forgot about section 215 of the Patriot Act“.  To add insult to injury, he got to keep his job. I doubt that such an excuse would serve to keep any of the rest of us out of jail.

It has become clear to me that the intelligence community has no respect for the same Constitution that the President and I – along with all of our men and women in uniform – swore to uphold and defend.

And so I have made the reluctant decision to encrypt my communications as a matter of policy wherever possible. Not because I have anything to hide, but because I believe that the too many of our rights have already been taken from us, and peaceful protest is the only course of action left open to me.

But what do you have to hide?” some of you may ask with a sneer. That’s not the point. But I will answer that with a question of my own: “Do you want a surveillance webcam installed in your bathroom/shower/bedroom?” I don’t think so. Contrary to popular belief — and a wrong-headed and stupid Supreme Court ruling, we *do* have a right to privacy; the only point of argument is where we choose to draw the line. My answer is simple: “I have nothing to hide from those whom I trust”.

I am not your enemy. And I shall prove this to you – just bring me a warrant.

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