We Are the Nerds: and You Need to Listen to Us

First and foremost, I apologize for my extended absence. Between a ten-day vacation, the rush of the holiday season, and a subsequent spate of random winter colds and flus, writing hasn't exactly been at the top of my list of priorities.

But more than that, I've been stuck. I write on this blog because there are an enormous number of technology-politics topics that deserve the public's attention. They're absolutely crucial issues: the effect that the TPP will have on archives and copyright; or whether the NSA can spy on Canadians' medical or tax information; or - perhaps worst of all - the fact that politicians are considering banning end-to-end encryption, putting the data of ordinary citizens at risk of interception by spies, criminals, hackers, and yes, even terrorists.

The problem is, these topics aren't sexy. 

Add to that the fact that everyone's Facebook, Twitter, and reddit are chock-full of articles vying for their attention - from social justice issues and world news, to celebrity gossip and the latest Buzzfeed listicle. Technology politics is a particularly difficult subject to cover, because it combines two things that a lot of people consider to be, frankly, boring.

That would be okay, just as long as politicians and leaders were heeding our advice - particularly the advice of computer security experts and privacy advocates. 

The second problem is that leaders aren't listening either.

The third problem is that they think they know better.

Those may sound like inflammatory accusations, but the proof is in the encryption debate. I won't rehash (pun intended) all the evidence I've provided on this blog, the tl;dr is that banning end-to-end encryption, or providing a secret backdoor for government agencies will make encryption useless, and fundamentally break the internet as we know it in dangerous ways. America's best and brightest - Apple, Microsoft, and Google, to name a few - have told the US government as much

Then, Democratic US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said things like this:
"...we need Silicon Valley not to view government as its adversary. We need to challenge our best minds in the private sector to work with our best minds in the public sector to develop solutions that will both keep us safe and protect our privacy."

... and...
"I would hope that, given the extraordinary capacities that the tech community has and the legitimate needs and questions from law enforcement, that there could be a Manhattan-like project — something that would bring the government and the tech communities together to see they're not adversaries, they've got to be partners."

... and then...
"I don't know enough about the technology ... to be able to say what it is..."

Re-read those passages again if you need to, I'll wait. Let them sink in. Ready?

In summation: One of the front-runner candidates for President of the United States (a progressive, experienced, and actually-qualified candidate, no less), called the tech community - the people who are telling her that adding secure backdoors to encryption is impossible - "our best minds" with "extraordinary capacities". She admits that she herself, in comparison, has no idea what she's talking about; and yet, despite this, and despite the fact that the tech community has told her this request is impossible, she unequivocally expects them to just sort of figure it out, and randomly evokes the development of the nuclear bomb as an analogy.

Not to split hairs (about splitting atoms), but nuclear physicists were pretty certain that a nuclear bomb was possible before they even tried to figure out the mechanics of how to build one. Encryption experts, security experts, computer scientists all know, right now, that engineering a backdoor to encryption schemes is a terrible idea which negates security. Adding to that general horribleness is the fact that politicians and law enforcement seem to be misrepresenting this issue as a debate about balancing privacy and security (which itself is a false dilemma), rather than an impossible proposal by laypersons which will destroy our entire security apparatus. 

Hillary isn't alone. Both Republican frontrunner *shudder* Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister David Cameron are outspoken advocates of this incredibly bad idea, despite the intense opposition of tech industry and security experts. One wonders: Are they simply not paying attention? How can you, in a single breath, characterize a group of people as experts who are the "best and brightest", then roundly ignore their response that what you've asked for is unfeasible and dangerous? How do you not sense your own hypocrisy when you're in it up to your nose?

As an IT professional, such attitudes are sadly not unfamiliar to me. While I must laud my own co-workers for being respectful and polite when they approach me with problems, I've had my share of horror stories: like when you ask someone if they're sure this-or-that is plugged in, they rail at you about how they're not stupid, only to realize a second later that this-or-that was not actually plugged in (troubleshooting starts at the ground floor, friends); or when a friend or family member begs for your advice fixing this-or-that, then proceeds to argue against all of your advice, assuring you that "I already tried that", generally cutting down your expertise and making the methodical troubleshooting process impossible.

While I was preparing to write this article*, I realized that my experiences as an IT professional might be more generally universal than I'd first considered. I reached out to an old friend of mine, who is now a medical doctor specializing in anesthesiology. I explained my frustrations, using encryption as a specific example. My friend resoundingly echoed very similar frustrations: a portion of patients regularly feel the need to contradict her advice on even basic medical knowledge. They make outlandish requests, and those requests are frequently dangerous.

Stop to think for a moment and you realize that this is a widespread problem. Conservative politicians are willing to listen to a tiny minority of fringe scientists over the 97% majority who say climate change is real and man-made. Frightened parents believe that vaccines cause autism despite the fact that you'll be hard-pressed to find a real doctor who agrees. America's inspectors and structural engineers are telling their government that bridges and causeways are on the verge of collapse, yet politicians seem to ignore their own experts, putting the safety of everyday citizens at risk.

What's the problem? Are we, as a people, unable to trust? Are our egos so big that we can't yield judgement to more knowledgable persons, even when it concerns our own safety? Are we a culture of people who insist on bucking even the smallest authority? I don't know, I'm neither a psychologist nor a sociologist... There, see how easy that was?

One thing is for sure, if we, as a society, can't get our leaders to listen to even the most basic advice of experts and professionals, the future is not going to look as bright as we might imagine. So, the next time your local computer nerd gives you some advice - for the love of Jobs, please - listen to them.

Extra Credit Reading: Still here? Wow! Here's a list of nerds experts, professionals, and organizations who oppose banning encryption. Listen to them!

The Information Technology Industry Council
Who They Are: A technology council which includes any tech company of importance. Like, every one. You might recognize Adobe, Apple, Blackberry, DropBox, Facebook, Google, HP, IBM, Intel, Lenovo, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, Symantec, Toshiba, Twitter, Visa, and Yahoo. That's just a sampling. They all oppose backdooring encryption
Listen to Them: Because they're... well... every single major tech company in existence.

Cory Doctorow
Who He Is: Besides being the co-editor of e-zine boingboing, a regular columnist for the Guardian, and an accomplished writer, Cory Doctorow is a longtime advocate for digital rights, privacy, and fair copyright worldwide.
Listen to Him: If his experience doesn't convince you that he knows what he's talking about, perhaps his writing will.

Who They Are: An utterly tireless group of (mostly) Canadians who are at the forefront of lobbying for digital rights, open access, and fair copyright in Canada and elsewhere.
Listen to Them: Read what OpenMedia's Digital Rights Specialist Laura Tribe has to say about encryption backdoors.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation
Who They Are: The CEO of T-mobile might not know who EFF is, but you should. The EFF has been lobbying for digital rights and fair copyright in the US since 1990.
Listen to Them: See what the EFF has to say about their government's plan to backdoor crypto.

Edward Snowden
Who He Is: The infamous NSA whistleblower, currently living in exile, who exposed the NSA's programs of mass, warrantless spying on ordinary Americans, which included inappropriate access for voyeuristic purposes.
Listen to Him: Besides being an expert simply by virtue of having been on the inside of domestic spying, Snowden has rightly pointed out that many terrorists, including the Paris attackers, aren't using encryption.

General Michael Hayden
Who He Is: The former director of the NSA, from 1999 to 2005.
Listen to Him: If even a former head of America's domestic spying apparatus thinks banning encryption is a bad idea, then it's probably a really, REALLY bad idea.

Some of the Leading Minds on Encryption Technology via MIT
Who They Are: I believe I just explained that. But specifically, they are Harold Abelson, Ross Anderson, Steven M. Bellovin, Josh Benaloh, Matt Blaze, Whitfield Diffie, John Gilmore, Matthew Green, Susan Landau, Peter G. Neumann, Ronald L. Rivest, Jeffrey I. Schiller, Bruce Schneier, Michael Specter, and Daniel J. Weitzner.
Listen to Them: This is a scholarly article, so it's heavy reading. But if you're really looking for the hard facts and nitty gritty, Keys Under Doormats will give you all the technical reasons why what governments are asking for is not feasible.

* This article was originally entitled "You Aren't an Expert? Then Shut Up." I decided on a slightly gentler approach.

cover image compiled using vector art by Leremy/Shutterstock