Privacy vs. Security

In my 2009 book, Windward Leadership: Taking Your Organization into the Prevailing Winds on Political Seas, I cited the issue of privacy vs. security as one of the looming issues that will test our republic in choosing which is the higher of two good, but competing values.

We see this now in the policy discussions about smartphone encryption.  Those in charge of national security argue that they need to be provided a way and the means to access and read data on the mobile device(s) used by designated suspects (i.e., a “back door”).  Meanwhile, the captains of the tech industry argue that they provide unbreakable encryption to protect their customers’ right to privacy.

At first glance, this can seem pretty simple.  Just apply the same rules that were devised for such situations in the world of paper records.  That is, if a proper authority provides a proper warrant for specific information for a specific individual, then they should be able to obtain that.  This is the argument for a “back door.” Seems reasonable.

However, it was one thing when someone had to physically visit a person’s home or office to legally or illegally secure someone’s private paper records.  There were ways you could separate and honor legal requests for otherwise private information versus protecting against illegal efforts to steal private information (e.g., Watergate style break-ins).  However, nowadays, it is no longer so easy to honor proper requests while protecting against information theft.  As technologists will quickly point out, if they provide a a backdoor for legitimate authorities making a legitimate request to decrypt a message, then that same backdoor will certainly be exploited by bad guys seeking to do harm.  They also rightfully point out that people now keep their lives on their smartphones: personal information, financial information, their employer’s business information, family information, intimate information, etc.

How you call this one depends, I suppose, on which of two competing good values is the higher order one.  Is privacy a higher order value than security, or security a higher order value than privacy?

Choosing between two good, but competing, values in our republic is something the Supreme Court exists to do.  Unfortunately, the issue is further complicated by the fact that bad guys do not have to rely on the captains of the technology industry for their encryption. Anyone, including the bad guys, can easily develop–have already developed–their own encrypted messaging apps.

Beware of anyone bearing an easy answer.  This is one of those things in this day and age where, if you aren’t perplexed then you’re not thinking clearly.


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