We Are Doing the Familiar Privacy vs. Law Enforcement Argument Again tbray.org

Tim Bray:

I hate to write a piece just saying Someone Is Wrong On The Internet. But Reid Blackman’s The Signal App and the Danger of Privacy at All Costs (in the NYTimes, forsooth) is not just wrong but dangerously misleading. I haven’t seen a compact explainer on why, so here goes.

No disrespect intended toward Bray, whose explainer is very good, but the original article is a variation on the same story we have heard countless times before: private communications are good but it is dangerous if there are no carve-outs for law enforcement. Blackman’s article is specifically about Signal because it has disappearing message features and a greater degree of anonymity than other mainstream messaging apps. It is therefore amusing to see him hand-waving the many Signal messages obtained by the FBI from U.S. insurrectionists while presenting this case.

I thought this paragraph from Blackman was worth highlighting:

What’s more, the company’s proposition that if anyone has access to data, then many unauthorized people probably will have access to that data is false. This response reflects a lack of faith in good governance, which is essential to any well-functioning organization or community seeking to keep its members and society at large safe from bad actors. There are some people who have access to the nuclear launch codes, but “Mission Impossible” movies aside, we’re not particularly worried about a slippery slope leading to lots of unauthorized people having access to those codes.

I sympathize with the thrust of this argument. Good governance is an essential part of democratic society and rebuilding trust in institutions must be a high priority. We should also be wary of slippery slope arguments. But Blackman does not present any evidence for how Signal — or any comparable application — would be able to turn the binary question of whether something is end-to-end encrypted into a gradient of access levels. In fact, this whole piece feels very much like a slippery slope argument itself: if you use Signal, you are a “witting or unwitting” proponent for adding barriers to prosecuting criminals.

This all feels very familiar. One would think prestige newspapers would stop publishing such well-worn ideas without further development of their arguments but, well, here we are.