Max Hodak Writings

Thinking of the children

August 2021

There is at present a tough battle being fought between technologist defenders of encryption on the one side and just about everyone else on the other. This conflict, sometimes dubbed the Crypto Wars, has a long history and it’s clear that pressure has been building on Apple specifically for some time now, especially after they refused to help access the 2015 San Bernardino shooter’s phone and then briefly flirting with the idea of encrypting iCloud backups before deciding against it after the government complained.

A new front has emerged with Apple’s statement that they will start scanning iPhones in the hands of users for prohibited content, specifically “Child Sexual Abuse Material,” or “CSAM.”

This is insidious because child sexual abuse is impossible to defend, and should not be defended, and as much as they believe in the right to privacy, no one who makes privacy-enabling technologies wants to be defending it. “Think of the children” has been a trope for decades as a joke about how the rights of civil society can get eroded when we’re not paying attention. But it’s still pretty jarring to see this acutely in the real world, because it really is affecting. No one wants to build technologies that facilitate these kinds of things, but privacy is also important, so what do we do when they look irreconcilable?

This is a topic that is already extensively written about. All I want to do here is convey what I think is a strong case against co-opting personal devices for law enforcement purposes, so that people who have done nothing wrong and don’t have anything to hide can see where we’re coming from when as a tech community we push back on these things.

The premise of democracy is that society should be governed according to the will of the people. There is a vast range of possible democracies with different rules and microstructure, but ultimately, the need for freedom of thought is a core principle. Without the ability to have your own private thoughts and discuss them with your friends and family, democracy is not possible, since there is no way to have political ideas and organize around them. We know from history that if you make it unsafe for some thoughts to be said or written down, eventually people stop having them. Surveillance is intimately tied up in not just freedom of expression, but freedom of thought itself.

Historically, the analog world provided many built-in protections for democratic ideals. But this has changed dramatically since the advent of the internet, which has put incredibly powerful tools for oppression in the hands of the few.

In response to the question of whether “governments [could] force Apple to add non-CSAM images to the hash list” they write that “Apple will refuse any such demands.” This is clearly not credible. Apple is based in the United States. If it is the will of Congress that Apple start scanning for other material it deems worthy, they will do so. But you can be certain that even more pernicious pressures will be applied probably immediately at dozens, if not hundreds, of other countries around the world with weaker checks on executive power. Apple will certainly comply rather than withdraw from the markets, as they have done so far in China. It is likely that no more powerful tool for surveillance authoritarianism has ever been conceived by humans.

Child sexual abuse should be pursued aggressively, and at the same time as encryption is helping protect broad freedom of thought, the sheer complexity of modern technology also provides ample opportunity for old fashioned police work. Facebook once wrote an exploit to unmask a predator that had been using Messenger to target kids, who was promptly arrested by the FBI. In another case, the FBI seized and briefly surreptitiously operated a dark web site for two weeks before making 956 arrests. There are literally dozens of known similar examples. The reality is that encryption is a population-level protection, not a person-scale one: it prevents mass ideological dragnets, but is not going to derail a serious investigation in a first-world country. With a technology such as the one Apple is proposing, a large part of holding onto power becomes just being able to set these lists of hashes. If democratic governance is supposed to represent the will of the people, then undermining confidence in one’s own hardware is an attack on democracy.

The last 30 years have been an unprecedented time of peace and prosperity for much of the world. It’s easy to miss just how anomalous this is historically. There is absolutely no guarantee that the future will be so bright, and on the contrary, there are now many plausible scenarios in which we head into highly stable dystopias. The most we can do for our children is to prevent this.

This is not my favorite thing I have posted on this site, since as should be clear, CSAM is indefensible, and I know that some will confuse my position as somehow protecting it. And further, given how seats of power all over the world know how valuable it would be to kill strong encryption, it seems foolish to draw attention to myself as being across the table from them. But, given the kind of products I work on, I felt it was important to make a statement of principle here. I believe strongly in these principles, and if we’re not willing to defend our freedom when it is threatened, we don’t deserve to keep it.