Freemors Blog

Musings of an East Coast Techie

A Phone is not a House

2016-04-01 by Freemor

With the ongoing debate about strong encryption on mobile devices, I'd like to take a moment to clear up a misconception that I've seen tossed around and sadly accepted by too many people.

To be clear anyone that reads my stuff will know that I fall well inside the "must have strong crypto" camp. So the views expressed here will clearly be coloured by that.

The point I want to clear up is this new comparison of cell phones to physical spaces. The argument tends to go like this: "Peoples homes are private but the government can get a warrant to search them. So the government should be able to do the same for Phones."

On the surface that may seems to make sense and I suspect that is why people are buying into it, but the truth is much closer to saying: "Peoples homes are private but the government can get a warrant to search them. So the government should be able to do the same for private conversations."

What the government is seeking is not access to a physical space but rather retroactive access to private conversations. The government has never had the ability in the past to compel you to divulge what you said to your friend last Tuesday. Especially if such might be incriminating.

By wanting all encryption breakable the government is trying to do an end run around your right to remain silent, or plead the 5th, or what ever the equivalent is in your country.

Cell phones are by definition communication devices, not dwellings, not safes, not a place of business. Cell phones store and transmit conversations, which is speech, which has special safe guards when talking privately with another individual.

Yes there are wiretaps and police can get a warrant to get a wiretap. But wiretaps have never been retroactive. Remember it's "You have the right to remain silent, anything you say may be used against you in a court..."

How safe do you feel knowing that by breaking into your phone and having retroactive access to your speech, "anything you say" now includes much of what you said for the last 2, 3, 5 years. Did you have an indiscretion that they can blackmail you with? Did you joke with a friend about robing a bank? Did you talk with someone about the possibility of fudging your taxes a bit? Did you get really drunk after a break-up and text something that could be considered a threat? And on, and on.

One of the reasons that speech is protected is because it is so easy to twist and use against someone. As the famous quote goes "If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him."

We can not, we must not allow governments and police to have easy unfettered retroactive access to our speech going back years. It removes too many safeguards and tips the balance of power dangerously to the side of the already powerful.

Keep private conversations private. Say No to big brother.