Giving any entity broad power of surveillance allows for the possibility of said surveillance being used for malicious purposes. We can see that, in many countries with stricter government, citizens are under scrutiny and often, dissenters or overly vocal critics are silenced through arrest or worse. But while this surveillance allows for malicious government action, it also weakens overall security against criminals, making it more possible to compromise financial info, online identity, and other sensitive data.

Cybersecurity relies on a reliable encryption method in order to keep communications, transactions, and documents secure. The encryption must be reversible by the recipient and keep the message inaccessible to interceptors. Allowing the government to read messages would necessitate some sort of backdoor in the encryption. This has two disadvantages: by introducing a backdoor, we create flaws and weaken the cipher. This results in the difficult task of making a backdoor accessible to only the government. The second disadvantage is related, in that the nature of the backdoor and the details of its functioning must be kept secret as well to prevent third parties from gaining the ability to decrypt any encrypted message. If those details were to leak, say in an Edward Snowden-like scenario, the cryptography would become useless.

We saw in Chapter 7 of Singh’s The Code Book that, in the case of Phil Zimmerman and his Pretty Good Privacy program, his packaging of RSA and IDEA encryptions conflicted with a law in a recent anticrime bill requiring electronic communications services to allow government access to any plaintext communication if requested. The danger posed to the government by PGP resulted in Zimmerman being classified as an arms dealer, as powerful encryption was a risk to the security of the country. The mathematics behind RSA does not allow for an easy installation of a backdoor without majorly decreasing the strength of encryption.

Giving the government wide latitude to use electronic surveillance can provide a temporary security; we can’t deny that. However, we are creating flaws in our security; flaws that can be exploited by criminals and governments overreaching their power. Allowing broad electronic surveillance can give more security now, but in the long run will only lead to weaker privacy for everyone.

Iron_Bishop. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons.