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9/11/15

Privacy: Of Course the Government Wants to Read Your Texts - by Megan McArdle

Imagine, if you will, a law that said all doors had to be left unlocked so that the police could get in whenever they needed to. Or at the very least, a law mandating that the government have a master key.

That's essentially what some in the government want for your technology. As companies like Apple and Google have embraced stronger encryption, they're making it harder for the government to do the kind of easy instant collection that companies were forced into as the government chased terrorists after 9/11.

And how could you oppose that government access? After all, the government keeps us safe from criminals. Do you really want to make it easier for criminals to evade the law?

The analogy with your home doors suggests the flaw in this thinking: The U.S. government is not the only entity capable of using a master key. Criminals can use them too. If you create an easy way to bypass security, criminals -- or other governments -- are going to start looking for ways to reproduce the keys.

Or consider another case cited by the Times, in which the government is trying to get Microsoft to give up messages stored on a server in Ireland. With today's global networks, it's frustrating how easily criminals can move things out of reach of the law. On the other hand, do we want the law to have farther reach? It might be kind of frightening if other governments, with weaker civil liberties protections, could get access to any of our messages, just by getting an order from their local court.

It's not that the government is wrong about the frustrations. Law enforcement has always had to deal with the problem of criminals who flee the jurisdiction. Over time, things like extradition agreements have reduced that problem to a largely manageable level. But physically removing themselves from the area is very costly for the criminal, who loses the ability to travel freely, to see family and friends, to access assets left behind in the United States.

Moving your messages to a foreign server, on the other hand, requires little in the way of strenuous effort. As the cost of moving evidence beyond an investigator's reach goes down, the cost of an investigation goes up -- even if the foreign courts are cooperative, and they often are, you still have to file a case under different laws that may not map particularly well onto yours.

Read more: Of Course the Government Wants to Read Your Texts - Bloomberg View

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