I recently upgraded my home computer in anticipation of getting an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, the first consumer high-end virtual reality (VR) experience. I want to note that I have not bought a Rift or any other device yet, but my wife and I agree that it is a foregone conclusion because I cannot resist a major tech step forward like this. Why? Because I love history, and never before in history has progress been so swift: it’s 2016 and VR is good enough to make people freak out when they forget they are wearing it. It’s been less than 10 years since most of you got your first smartphone, and 20 years since you first had a fixed connection (either at home or work) to the internet. How amazing is our technological progress and evolution as tool creators and users, and in just such a short time!? From my perspective, participating as an early adopter gives me a chance to help define the technology and its uses, and VR is going to help me be anywhere at anytime, the logical next step in the connectivity hierarchy.
To me, there is no more vibrant discussion of what connectivity means to us as people and society. In my lifetime it has meant that the 18 months that my wife and I spent living on separate continents was much more bearable than it was for my parents in the 60’s (Phone calls were WAY too expensive and mail took weeks and often traveled by boat). My wife and I emailed every day, and eventually discovered skype. Then we got smartphones and texting, never mind MySpace, Facebook and all of the other connection tools. I am in touch with way more people from my past all because of these tools, and how easy it is to remain connected. Compared to what communication choices existed in the 1960’s, we might as well be on Star Trek today (Still no flying cars though…).
Even more amazing is that people have embraced and fully use these tools. My British grandmother, at 93, had both an iPhone and iPad, and used and loved both of them. Children today cannot imagine a world without all of this technology, and they will not only master it, they will take us to new places because they see it as second nature. Today there are 1.5 billion people on Facebook, and 1 billion people on WhatsApp. Simply incredible.
So the world is evolving faster than ever, we are connected to everything and everybody, we can share knowledge and experiences in a multitude of ways with the device we carry with us everywhere, and yet we constantly find ourselves in public debates between the government and private companies over what is “right” regarding access to our personal information. I have found myself repeatedly facing large numbers of people who disagree with me, so I wanted to (because I am a tech enthusiast) explain my position (summarized in the title of this blog post).
Kraft Macaroni and Cheese recently changed their recipe, making their product healthier with all natural ingredients and other good stuff. The amazing thing was, they did not tell anybody until three months after they did it. Think New Coke and you can understand why they took this approach. As the amazing Terry Pratchett once said: “People don’t like change. But make the change fast enough and you go from one type of normal to another.”Kraft waited until the new product was the new “normal” and then actually had fun at the customer’s expense with a single ad that demonstrates how crazy we all are.
The current normal is that up until now, the internet has been this free, amazing, accessible window into global connectivity that has for most companies and consumers, only had an upside. It’s cheap, it’s accessible, and really, nobody is in charge, making it an incredibly attractive place to do stuff like start a business (www.ignition72.com), sell stuff, collect stuff, or even…. do illegal stuff. If you paid attention to the Silk Road drama, and in particularly the arrest of the Dread Pirate Roberts(DPR), last year was a big year for the Government Catching Their Man: DPR constantly boasted online about how Silk Road was untraceable because it used TOR and BitCoin. While he ran a $1.2 billion online drug bazaar, it wasn’t even in the US (it was in Iceland) and yet our guys figured it out and shut it down (HE was in the US, a fatal flaw). It is therefore no surprise that the FBI tech squad is making an appearance after a terrorist attack on our own soil, they have to, it’s their jobs. Quite frankly as a taxpayer, I expect them to do everything possible to mitigate any future attacks that could threaten me, my family or any other innocent person. It is their job.
This is new, up until now our government (and every government) have had a hard time keeping up with the technology revolution. (So do banks, hospitals and quite frankly, any large organization). As a result, we got used to this open, free world where anything goes and people can enjoy the sense of anonymity that comes with any mad, crowded rush. That time is over, and the government of our country, as well as many others, have caught up. They are relaxing their standards to access the good talent, and people tired of the hustle, wanting to settle down, maybe have families, are changing teams for a government pay-check and pension. From there it is natural that our elected officials will want to exert as much control over it as is possible. Again, it’s their job (or so they say).
In the case of the San Bernardino “terrorist” iPhone, the details are critically important:
1) It’s an old phone, Apple have not sold it in a while.
2) It’s the cheap model, no fingerprint reader (now standard) and less sophisticated encryption.
3) Apple has helped the FBI, DOJ and other entities access information on these phones in the past, because they could.
4) Apple could only circumvent the lockout feature, it could not magically un-encrypt the phone, but it could try, considering it is the older, more flawed encryption system.
Apple had a unique opportunity to both help, as they have done before, and promote the new normal: All future iPhones will be locked down, not because Apple will not help, but because they cannot. Instead they came across as petty (as did the government), and even got a mention as a product that should be boycotted by the leading Republican candidate for the Presidency. And then, one week later, we all learned that the FBI has “skillz,” and got into that phone lickety-split. Why the change of heart when they unlocked data in more than 70 past cases? Why did the whole world have to watch two giants have a “slappy” fight in public?
Encryption is fascinating to me and I have loosely followed it since Phillip Zimmerman created and gave away PrettyGoodPrivacy (PGP), an email encryption program that allowed 1024 bit encryption. At the time what he did was borderline criminal, the power of encryption meant it was classified as a munition, so the government tried (and failed) to charge him with illegally exporting weapons. At the time, nobody cared. Fast forward 20 years and a guy named Ladar Levison set up an online email client (like Gmail, or Yahoo, or AOL Mail) which encrypted all of its contents to protect its customers. He had one very famous customer, Edward Snowden, and the Federal Government was demanding access to the account, so Ladar did the brave thing: He shut down his company rather than comply and compromise the privacy of his clients. Nobody cared.
When the new normal is OUR information being threatened, everybody cares. I have to ask…Why?
What is on our phones that is not in our homes, offices and cars? The Government is allowed to demand access to all of that. Let me see if I understand: My bedroom is less private than my phone? Seriously? If I commit a heinous crime you can tear my house and life apart, detain anybody that I know and love, but how dare you see my SMS messages, selfies and tweets?
This is nuts, and it should not be the conversation. Apple failed here.
What the conversation SHOULD be is that the new normal is here, now: Our devices are more powerful than ever, more connected than ever and more able to do amazing things, including 2048 bit encryption on the fly. We want this to continue. For that to happen, we need to close the circle and apply what we have learned: Connectivity has made it easier for people to commit crimes anonymously, people are hassled and hurt online all the time. Heck, we even had a hacker take over the scoreboard of a game we built, and change all the initials of the players to EAT POO. (We had filters and everything, but not for eat or poo). For every good thing on the web there are bad ones, and we need to start making this a real, amazing and wonderful place for everybody. To do that, we need a couple of key things:
1) Encrypt everything: Spying took a huge leap forward with the invention of the telegraph, and since then our tech has always been open and prone to spying, and data is even easier than audio. It’s simply the nature of tech.Before that to spy on somebody you had to stand nearby and listen in without being noticed. Private was, for hundreds of years, normal. It’s really only been an effective government tool for 130 years or so. WhatsApp, the most used communication app on the planet, today announced that they are now encrypting everything on their app. While they would love to help (and have in the past) law enforcement, this will not be possible in the future, because they are making the new normal the same as the old. Now when you are chatting with somebody, be it your spouse, business partner, physician or criminal accomplice, you will know that the only way somebody is seeing what you send is by looking over your shoulder.
2) Get rid of anonymity and start counting reputation: At the moment we are building out the beginnings of a reputation based online value system; you use them all the time: LinkedIn, Yelp, and ratings on millions of sites, services and apps allow us to create a punitive arm of the web: If you stink, people will avoid you. People need to accept that there really is no anonymity on the web, at least not if somebody with enough resources or power is motivated to find out who you are. Personally, I think that is fine: The web is a public place, akin to a mall or public square. I want people to behave, and I respect the right of people to do what they want privately, but publicly, there should be consequences for actions that hurt others.
People following the recent Apple/FBI story got a story of a company drawing the line and refusing to help as they had before, instead of using this opportunity to deliver the new (encrypted) normal to everybody, for everything. When everything is encrypted we are always whispering to the person next to us and we can always be happy to help, even if we are unable to. Privacy has been an ideal for a long time and the last century and a half has not been good to it, but that is about to change: Today encryption for everything is the new normal, thanks to WhatsApp.
As a society we should be equally willing to saddle up to accountability as well. The Wild West of the internet is coming to an end (hopefully?), and that is a good thing: because I seriously do not want anybody snooping on me when I am playing with my Oculus Rift!
PS: WhatsApp was bought by Facebook for $19Billion, while they bought Oculus for $2Billion. WhatsApp employs a total of 50 people. In different parts of the world you pay for things, order things and just about anything on WhatsApp.