The False Promise of “Lawful Access” to Private Data

The False Promise of “Lawful Access” to Private Data

A stark reality keeps confronting us: Terrible things are being done in the world. The darkest impulses of some people are honed and polished on the internet, in secret. Then those impulses are visited upon us, in violent and sickening ways. One of the most recent such tragedies, as I write, happened in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15, 2019, but there might be another by the time you read this. Every time, we all want to know the same thing: What is to be done about this?

Many are trying to figure this very thing out. On Wednesday, the leaders of New Zealand and France organized a meeting with various other heads of state to discuss “The Christchurch Call,” a global pact to crack down on extremist content online. Ahead of the summit, Facebook announced that users violating certain policies by the platform will be restricted from using Facebook Live, a service that was used by the shooter in New Zealand to broadcast the terror attack.


But one of the ideas that keeps coming up is something called “lawful access.” The idea sounds so reasonable. Bad people often communicate with others using encryption. So, it is effectively impossible to see what they are saying. And they often store information using encryption. So, after they have committed their crimes, it is practically impossible to find out how the crimes were planned or even to find the incriminating evidence.


The idea is that, under appropriate legal authorization, legitimate law enforcement agencies will have the power to intercept and open up commu ..