What Ben Franklin Didn’t Say About Encryption


“Those who give up their liberty for more security neither deserve liberty nor security.”

-Benjamin Frankin on phone encryption

At least that’s the popular misquote used when discussing how much “The State” should be allowed to know about what we citizens are up to.

The actual quote (which is a version of a different piece of his own writing) is:

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

The presence of the qualifiers little and temporary are pretty important omissions. Crucially, these words  leave room for sacrificing liberty for lasting security and/or for big change while at the same time requiring us to identify essential liberties.

The current lightning rod for this issue is the court ordering of Apple to “unlock” the San Bernadino jihadists’ phones.  Apple, although it could equally have been Google or any other company, is reluctant to comply even going so far as to draft an open letter about the situation.

A common refrain for supporting the rights of law enforcement to look at phone details is that it shouldn’t be a problem, unless you have something to hide. I’m inclined to agree with the position, in principle. The problem is deciding whether something is empirically bad or just an opinion of those doing the looking. Where I live it’s not a big problem, but under other regimes it certainly would be.

A second concern is that a backdoor to encryption could also be used by hackers. I know these nefarious characters are one of the favourite bogeymen for those who want to promote encryption, but, no matter what way you dress it up, a security backdoor does make something less secure.

So, back to the quote. Does the ability to get into jihadists’ phones and maybe save lives from other terror attacks qualify as a lot of permanent safety and is having safe information on your phone an essential liberty?

The decision’s about to be made one way or another. Worryingly, it won’t be made by people as free to make purely reasoned proclamations as Ben Franklin.

UPDATE: Google is supporting Apple’s stance according to CEO Sundar Pichai’s twitter.

Scatter your thoughts here.