The Magic of Technology

I haven’t been paying much attention to the perpetual presidential campaign, beyond Stephen Colbert’s brilliant Hungry for Power Games segments and a few other trusted sources.

One of which is Wired, where a recent short post offers a few examples of just how clueless our national leadership really is when it comes to technology. In that article, the writer highlights some crazy ideas (out of many more I’m sure) that came from the most recent Republican debate.

Like Donald Trump’s idea about “closing areas” of the internet “where we are at war with somebody”. As with many things he says, this proposal is very short on details.

It’s not exactly clear what Trump means by “closing areas where we are at war with somebody,” and we’re not exactly sure Trump knows what he means, either. Our best guess is that he’s saying it’s possible for the US to shut down Internet access in countries like Syria. That’s problematic, not only because it would shut off millions of innocent people from the Internet, but also because the US simply doesn’t control the Internet in countries like Syria, and neither do US companies.

Then we have former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina who claimed that the tech industry would be “happy” to assist intelligence agencies like the NSA in the “war on terror” (just as she did at HP, apparently by agreeing to sell them a bunch of servers), it’s just that no one has asked them.

But the bigger problem is Fiorina’s assertion that the tech community hasn’t been asked to be part of this work. In reality, government has not only asked technologists to be part of the counterterrorism effort, it’s begged them. Just last week President Obama called on tech companies to work with law enforcement in the aftermath of the San Bernardino attack. Meanwhile, FBI director James Comey urged companies like Apple to reconsider end-to-end encryption.

But those were just the most recent appeals in the encryption battle that has been building between Silicon Valley and Washington DC. For years, tech companies like Apple and Google have fought tirelessly against government proposals that would require them to build so-called “backdoors” into their encrypted technology. They argue that this would make their technology–and their users vulnerable–and so far at least, they’ve won.

Hopefully, they will continue to win the fight against those “backdoors”, since there’s no such thing as an opening that only good guys can use. Plus it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad.

But no matter. The other candidates on stage “with the exception of, perhaps, Cruz and Senator Rand Paul” also “seem far more interested in restoring the country’s surveillance capabilities than they are in protecting Americans’ privacy.”

Finally, it’s not exactly current technology but when it comes to “carpet bombing” and fighting ISIS, at least one candidate has a lot of catching up to do, not to mention with the legal and moral issues involved.

The biggest problem in all this, however, is that far too many of our leaders, on that debate stage and elsewhere, are ignorant of the internet, digital encryption, and more. They seem to ascribe magical properties to the technology, believing that just using the authority of the president, technology can be used to shape the world to fit their vision.