Another Reason to Praise Snowden: He Sped Up Encryption Development

The NSA laments what is a positive development for individual privacy and security.



This morning Edward Snowden was blamed for accomplishing yet another thing for which he should actually be praised. At a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that Snowden's surveillance leaks have prompted a massive push to improve encryption. The result? Data encryption is seven years ahead of where it would have been had Snowden kept his big mouth shut.

This is something about which Clapper said, "From our standpoint, it's not a good thing":

New, commercially available encryption software "had and is having major, profound effects on our ability" to collect intelligence, "particularly against terrorists," he warned.

That's in large part because the Islamic State is "the most sophisticated user by far of the Internet." They privately purchase software that "to ensure end-to-end encryption" of their communications.

"And so that is a major inhibitor to discerning plotting, principally by ISIL and others," Mr. Clapper said, using one acronym for the Islamic State.

I suspect a little bit of exaggeration here and that ISIS is not, indeed, the most sophisticated user "by far" of the Internet. If nothing else, we would hope that Clapper's own employees at the NSA are actually more sophisticated users. If not, strong encryption is the least of our problems.

The improvement of cybersecurity for tech users is undeniably a net good for everybody. It's typical government authoritarian logic to fret that the problem with individuals having tools that protect themselves is that bad people will use these tools to protect themselves as well. The solution for some—whether we're talking about encryption, or guns, or even money to pay for attorneys—is to prohibit or seriously weaken everybody's access to these tools with vague, unsupportable claims that they'll help prevent violence or help fight crime. For folks like Clapper, his priority is getting access to every single piece of information that exists in the world by any means possible. Whether bad things could possibly happen to you as a result of your data protection being weakened is a "you problem" not an "NSA problem."

Clapper, as we've seen from this administration, is quick to invoke the mysterious "balance" of issues:

Clapper for his part echoed President Obama's warning against "absolutist positions" on the topic. "Somehow, we need to find a balance here," he said. "I don't know the technicalities of how we might arrive here, how we thread the needle" between how to "ensure privacy and security on an individual basis, as well as security in the context of what's best for the collective good."

The problem with these calls for "balance" is that, despite the veneer of moderateness, it's an unprincipled grasp for control. When an official says that there needs to be a balance, it's a denial in the idea that a constitutional principle or civil liberty should be the restraining force on authority. Instead, liberties and authorities are portioned out like peas and carrots by the lunch lady at the school cafeteria.

But never forget that the lunch lady is in the employ of the government, the side that relentlessly pushes for more "authority." As such, efforts at a solution to this "balance" will be that government officials will attempt to grab as much as they can. Whatever balance that protects liberty or privacy will amount to whatever influence outside forces (with the help of a handful of like-minded legislators) will be able to eke out. In the end the balance will be determined by those who pass the law or approve the regulation: the government.

Thus, we end up with the absolutely horrendous first attempt at a federal encryption law by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.). There is no "balance" to be found in their bill. It's all authority, through and through. When the government demands information about your data, and a court approves it, tech companies are obligated to provide it, encryption be damned. There is no liberty or privacy to speak of. And so the "balance" in this fight—assuming that Congress won't stop until it passes some form of legislation—will be a fight to get privacy protections added.

This idea of "balance" itself subverts the concept that what the Constitution is supposed to do is limit government authority. What is presented by President Barack Obama and other government officials assumes that the two sides are two be treated equally, when in fact the balance was originally designed to limit the side represented by folks like Clapper, Feinstein and Burr.

Below, watch Reason's Nick Gillespie interview Snowden: