Default settings, encryption, and privacy

One essay that powerfully shaped my intellect in my impressionable youth was Douglas Hofstadter’s Changes in Default Words and Images, Engendered by Rising Consciousness, that appeared in the November 1982 issue of Scientific American (back when Scientific American was good), and Hofstadter’s associated satire A Person Paper on Purity in Language. Hofstadter’s point is that we are constantly filling in unknown facts about the world with default assumptions that we can’t recognise unless they happen to collide with facts that are discovered later. He illustrates this with the riddle, popular among feminists in the 1970s, that begins with the story of a man driving in a car with his young son. The car runs off the road and hits a tree, and the man is killed instantly. The boy is brought to the hospital, prepped for surgery, and then the surgeon takes one look at him and says “I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son.” As Hofstadter tells it, when this story was told at a party, people were able to conceive of explanations involving metempsychosis quicker than they could come to the notion that the surgeon was a woman. It’s not that they considered it impossible for a woman to be a surgeon. It’s just that you can’t think of a human being without a sex, so it gets filled in with the default sex “male”. (The joke wouldn’t really work today, I imagine. Not only are there so many women surgeons that it’s hard to have a very strong default assumption, but the boy could have two fathers. On the other hand, a “nurse” has a very strong female default, so much so that a male nurse is frequently called a “male nurse”, to avoid confusion.)

The default may be based on typicality, rather than any statistics. So, for example, if I tell a story that I went into the woods one day and saw an animal. I watched it quietly for some time, but then a sparrow swooped down and ate it, you’re probably mildly surprised by the twist at the end. It’s not that you didn’t know that a worm or an aphid is an animal, or that I explicitly suggested it was some other sort of animal. It’s not even as though there are more deer or foxes than worms in the woods. It’s just that your default setting for “animal” is not a worm, and you can’t imagine a generic “animal” that is not some specific kind of animal.

US Attorney General Eric Holder tells us that the shift of Apple and Google to user-held encryption keys by default (and, at least in the case of Google, this seems to be really just a change in what is the default setting, on capabilities that were already included in the Android operating system)

FBI director James Comey said in a speech recently

“I like and believe very much that we should have to obtain a warrant from an independent judge to be able to take the content of anyone’s closet or their smart phone,” he said. “The notion that someone would market a closet that could never be opened — even if it involves a case involving a child kidnapper and a court order — to me does not make any sense.”

That sounds pretty awful. A child locked inside a closet, and the police can’t get it open, even with a court order. It’s a good thing that manufacturers keep copies of every key, just in case… Besides which, we’re talking about telephones, not closets. You can’t physically lock a child in there. We’re talking about cases where police suspect that useful information could be found. It’s not as though people didn’t used to be able to encode their private messages, or keep contraband in locked cabinets.

No one has yet proposed a law requiring that copies of every house key must be deposited with the manufacturer, just in case the police need to search the place (with a legal warrant). It’s a bit of a nuisance for the cops, since they either need the cooperation of the resident or they need to batter the door down. This, as much as the now seemingly quaint requirement of getting a judge to approve the search, protects individual privacy. It never used to even be possible for police to trawl through someone’s private files without them even being alerted to the search. Police work had to make do in the past without any of the sort of information that is now routinely stored by electronic devices, and it was not impossible. I strongly doubt that they are using the most high-level encryption protocols on everyone’s smartphone data. A month or two of dedicated computation would probably gain them entry to a particular suspect’s data, but they can’t just snoop around in real time. It’s actually a lot like the old system where they might need a warrant and an acetyline torch if the suspect won’t reveal the safe combination.

And while both sides talk about police coming with a legal warrant, we all know that this is only the extreme case. EVEN WITH A WARRANT they can’t get the information. But we all know that the authorities have been poking around in our private information completely unrestricted, without a warrant or even a particular suspicion. And no one even pretends that US authorities pay any heed at all to the privacy rights of non-Americans. Presumably those 95% of the potential customer base are the main targets of the blunt comments from Apple and Google that they are tying their hands to make themselves unable to reveal the data, even if they want to.

It also has the advantage that the companies themselves are physically incapable of snooping on these data… if they’re telling the truth.

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