Privacy Debate: Government on Encryption for Social Media and Personal Technology to Prevent Terrorism, Gang Violence, and Crime

Privacy Debate: Government on Encryption for Social Media and Personal Technology to Prevent Terrorism, Gang Violence, and Crime

We currently live in an age where technology and social media has grown exponentially in the past decades and continues to become more and more prevalent in our daily lives. Although this has allowed for people and communities to collaborate and stay well-connected with each other over a multitude of platforms, it has also provided a convenient facet for militant groups and terrorist organizations to recruit members, communicate orders, and execute their malicious attacks. With so much personal data stored in the web, social media platforms, and our daily technology such as cell phones, tablets, and laptops, companies have put substantial effort in making sure all user information is safe–well encrypted and private. This is beneficial for the average citizen, but not when encryption also protects the malicious plans and information of terrorist and militant groups. Tensions rise between the government and private corporations; this touches upon an important debate between user privacy and encryption and government warrant. There are certain ethical questions we must ask ourselves regarding encryption and privacy: Should the government receive the warrant to have tech companies give them information on personal accounts and passwords in order to investigate crime and militant or terrorist groups? Regarding social media and electronic mail platforms, such as instagram, facebook, Gmail, and Twitter, should the government be able to see content posted in private accounts or private messages in emails? There is an ongoing debate on this issue, and touches upon the precedent of law enforcement: how far will government go to protect its citizens even if it meant access all personal accounts, technology, and social media and how will this impact the average citizen? Does this essentially mean that there would be complete transparency and no privacy– a 4th amendment right? How does this fall into the engineering code of ethics for private corporations?

The first argument calls into the careful mediation the negative effects of government intervention and warrant into private technology and social media accounts, and whether it is truly beneficial for the common good. According to Bob Lord, Yahoo’s Security Chief on the encryption debate, “there are human rights activists throughout the world who struggle to communicate freely, to organize and to share their thoughts because their governments are looking to control the telecom companies, and the phone companies.” (1). Other than human right activities, Lord states that there is a growing danger, ranging from “Eastern European criminal syndicates to foreign nation-states” that can hurt and steal information from thousands of people (1). The role of encryption holds importance in protecting those people when they try to communicate with their banks, with their doctors, with the government over tax issues without their information being stolen or used for malicious purposes.

Although the privacy and information of the general population should be conserved, there are still terrorists and militant groups that utilize these mediums to recruit and pass information that can potentially perpetrate the death of thousands of people as shown thrown violent attacks throughout history. In fact, Al-Qaeda has been noted as being one of the terror groups that uses social media the most extensively  to spread its global communications (2). A man named Mohammed Yazdani, who was a poor engineer from India, was able to easily join ISIS by logging into Twitter, searching the hashtags #ISIS and #Khilafa, and quickly making contact with an Islamic State recruiter (3). ISIS helped Yazdani recruit conspirators, locate weapon caches prepositioned around India, and attempt to manufacture explosives (3). In this case, would it be more reasonable for government to have media surveillance into private accounts? Wouldn’t it be acceptable to compromise the average citizen’s privacy if it meant saving millions of lives? Past simply social media, should the government have access into any technological device we own? In the infamous FBI-Apple encryption dispute, the FBI ordered Apple to unlock and disable the auto-erase function of an iPhone 5C owned by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the shooters involved in the December 2015 San Bernardino attack that killed 14 people and critically injured 22 (4).  The two attackers had died four hours after the attack in a shootout with the police, having previously destroyed their personal phones. Despite having recovered Farook’s work phone, the government was at a loss, as it was locked with a four-digit password and programmed to delete all its data after ten failed attempts. In order to investigate the tragedy and identify anyone who was involved with the shooting in order to prevent future occurrences of such event, the police needed access into this phone, yet Apple refused, stating that unlocking the phone would open a backdoor and risk all its customers. Apple does present an important factor to consider, but the question needs to be asked as to what other options are there for law enforcement? The goals have been to build encryption as secure as possible, which means no built-in vulnerabilities and also means at some point, but also to maintain general welfare and prevent terrorist attacks and the spread of harm. These two mediums must be balanced.

According to the EEE Code of Ethics and NSP Code of Ethics of Engineering, one the first Rules of Practice of being an engineer is to “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public” (5). In my opinion, a protocol for the government to bypass encryption should be carefully set up with specific guidelines of when it is permitted so it does not prive into the private lives of average citizens. The level of potential harm must exceed a certain threshold for government intervention into private accounts and technology, and this threshold should be quantified and calculated weighing multiple factors to reduce subjectivity and bias. This will prevent law enforcement from getting entangled in citizen communications with their banks, with doctors, family, etc; and make sure that citizen privacy is kept for the most part. Until the threshold of potential harm is met, the government should not be able to access private accounts or technology, and the information would only ever be used to mitigate harm in the general public, and not to be commercialized or publicized in any way, following the 4th  rule of practice in the engineering code of ethics: “Engineers shall not disclose, without consent, confidential information concerning the business affairs or technical processes of any present or former client or employer, or public body on which they serve” (5). Implications to these practices should be considered–including defining what defines the greater good. For example, in a hypothetical scenarios, if a girl might was going to commit suicide or may be potentially be murdered by a stranger she was talking to online and her mom needs access to her phone–would the government intervene? Or is this a breach in privacy into private conservations? It is important to define strict lines, and follow the engineering code of ethics to benefit the safety, health, and welfare of the public. So in the end, the question is, what is the right thing for the largest number of people under the largest number of circumstances. That’s where the government should be able to access private accounts and personal technology–to provide the largest amount of common good.



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