New technology raises an old debate

Published 10:57 pm Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Where does a consumer’s right to privacy end, and where do public safety interests begin?

That’s the question the Senate Judiciary Committee will explore in upcoming weeks as members hear testimonies in the ongoing debate between government and tech industry. At the middle of the debate is the age-old question of balancing personal freedom with public safety.

FBI and Justice Department officials argue that encryption technology built into smartphones and other electronic devices makes it hard, if not impossible, to track criminals – from pedophiles to terror suspects. They cite specifics, such as sympathizers with the Islamic State who communicate via end-to-end encrypted messages that can be decoded only by the sender or recipient or child molesters who use encryption technology to conceal damning photographic evidence.

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On the other hand, leaders of the tech industry have long argued that encryption is necessary to protect consumers’ privacy, used in everything from health care records to messages between parents and children. It is, no doubt, necessary to the function of the smart phones on which we have become so dependent for everything from communications to scheduling to banking and monetary transactions.

And that’s where the rub arises.

Most of us can objectively see the need, and even support the cause, for government agencies to be able to break encryption codes in circumstances that protect the public safety (say, thwarting a terrorist attack). But who decides when that access is warranted? Who has access? And how do we know when our seemingly safe, protected data and messages are really being tracked and accessed?

One suggestion proffered would require individual companies – not the government – to retain access to a key to unlock encrypted data. That digital key could be used only in response to a court order, a measure that in theory should provide some checks and balances to the government’s actions. And worries about that technology in the hands of individuals – whose motives and actions can never be guaranteed – remains a concern.

In truth, there is no simple solution. With each successive technological evolution, we find ourselves faced with new ethical challenges and the age-old issue that drove our forefathers to the United States of America: how to balance the protection of an individual’s right to life and liberty with the government and the protections, services and guidance it provides.

Americans have been wrestling with that same question for nearly 240 years now.