Nathalie Peron: Privacy Versus Security – The Great Debate of the Digital Age

Nathalie Peron: Privacy Versus Security – The Great Debate of the Digital Age

LiQM_Mar2017_CoverThis column first appeared in the March 2017 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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Privacy Versus Security: The Great Debate of the Digital Age

By Nathalie Peron

Dec. 2, 2015, San Bernardino, California: Fourteen people are killed and 22 are seriously injured in a mass shooting described as a terrorist attack. Both presumed shooters are killed in a shootout with police later that same day.

In the evidence gathered by the FBI is an iPhone 5C that investigators are unable to unlock. The FBI asks for Apple’s help to unlock the phone, and Apple refuses. The FBI then asks a court to force Apple to help the authorities break the phone’s encryption. A judge issues an order compelling Apple to provide “reasonable technical assistance.” Apple refuses to comply. The whole affair is dropped after the FBI finds another way to access the device and drops the case.

Problem solved? No, it is not. It is merely postponed, if that. Now, I’m no tech specialist. Actually, the term “moderate tech-savvy enthusiast” would most accurately describe my love-hate relationship with all things technological. But I believe the debate between security and privacy extends beyond technology and its uses.

Let’s start with encryption. In the simplest terms, encryption is a means of transforming data in order to “lock” it and make it readable only to those who have the decryption code, also known as the key. Encryption is vital. It protects your information from falling into the wrong hands. Think of all the transactions, emails and forms containingNathalie_Peron_LiQM_Mar2017_a sensitive information that you put out there in the cloud, or that you think are safe on your phone, computer or tablet. All this information needs to be protected, and encryption ensures that protection, both for the data you send “out there” and the data that stays on your devices.

In standard encryption, the data that passes between the communicator (you) and the server is encrypted, but the data within the server can be accessed by the server owner. End-to-end encryption, used by WhatsApp and Telegram for example, encrypts the data until it is decrypted by the intended recipient; it can’t be decrypted by the server owner because only the intended recipient has the key.

Encryption is also present on actual physical devices as a security feature. Entering an incorrect access code too many times in an attempt to access a phone, for example, can lock the phone and erase its data. This was the FBI’s problem in the San Bernardino case when it requested Apple’s help.

So why did Apple refuse to assist the FBI? I mean, the agency only wanted to access a suspected terrorist’s phone, to gather information for the case and possibly prevent other tragedies. If that’s what it takes to help ensure that other potential terrorists are discovered and stopped, why not? Let them be arrested and tried. If we can use technology to prevent terrorist acts, that’s an advantage we should exploit. Seems justifiable, no? On the surface, it might.

Apple explained its position, saying that designing a code to crack the phone is feasible. However, the code could be used on every other iPhone, and eventually modified and used on phones from other manufacturers. Also, there is no way to ensure the code’s safety. It could get stolen, used and abused by ill-intentioned governments, criminal organizations or zealous hackers who could erase you, for all intents and purposes, from existence. Physically, you would still be standing here, but every computerized information system in the world would believe you to be dead. Ultimately, this is what we are now: information. We are what can identify us. What was once a piece of paper we could hold in our hands is now binary code on servers and phones, on drives and in clouds, out of our direct control.

How much access do you want government and law enforcement agencies to have to information that you consider private? Once that door is opened, there is no way to close it. And the door will open for everybody; you can’t open it only for criminals and guarantee that the privacy of law-abiding people will be respected. When the toothpaste comes out of the tube, you can’t shove it back in, and it will stick to everything and everyone everywhere.


About Author

Nathalie Peron

Naturalized Quebec City citizen, Nathalie has studied in literature and as a paralegal, the latter stemming a career she has strived in for the past 10 years, notably in workers’ compensation cases. Artistically inclined, she has acted in amateur theatre for 25 years and has lately added singing to her amateur CV. She now stretches her professional wings to writing, both corporate and creative texts, hoping to meld both her artistic and legal personalities.

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