It’s an extreme worst-case scenario: In a tug-of-war between individual privacy and government oversight, privacy wins and dozens of people suffer and die at the hands of terrorists.
This is what happened in San Bernardino in late 2015. Tragically, a pair of radicalized Californians took 14 innocents’ lives and wounded 22 more. Their weapons were a pair of rifles, a pair of handguns, an explosive device that failed … and their iPhones, which are thought to have been used for encrypted communication between the terrorists and their support network.
The FBI’s efforts to unlock Farook’s phone led to dueling legal actions and a global controversy that consumed the public’s attention for four long months. The government eventually paid a pretty penny, and then some, for a “grey hat” firm to exploit the phone’s weaknesses. In the court of public opinion, the issue shapes up as a battle between public safety and personal privacy. The truth is more complicated than that. It represents a fundamental shift in how societies communicate, away from centralized structures to a distributed global mesh.
In the long tail of human history, this trend ironically represents a return to form. For our first couple hundred thousand years or so, people lived in small hunting and gathering communities small enough that everyone knew everyone, and authority, procreation opportunities, food rationing, and other aspects of life were handled among individuals, one-to-one. As the futurist Lowell Catlett has long argued, people, plants, and animals have been inseparable since this time.
But when people went from hunting and gathering to husbandry and agriculture, we got further from each other and from our plants and animals. Society quickly got too big to manage one-to-one and some enterprising humans started to develop the structures of central authority to control reproductive rights, food, and other assets. And, in turn, regulate the flow of information. Whether it is a government, a religion, a cult, or a revolution, these structures ranging from laws to bibles to cable TV schedules control what people are saying and sharing, to one extent or another.
In the United States this is currently accomplished via an elaborate legal infrastructure that stretches from the 1789 All Writs Act to the FCC’s and FBI’s current-day regulatory maneuverings. The fact that it took the FBI four months of legal wrangling and paying a grey hat hacker under the table suggests that the infrastructure is getting rickety. The fact that WhatsApp just launched fully encrypted end-to-end file transmission means that communications – along with other things like commerce, finance, and information technology – no longer need to flow through centralized channels that can be monitored or regulated.
This means the issue is a lot deeper than the FBI vs. the terrorists. What does this mean to you? Decentralized communication will be a radical change with both predictable and surprising effects—including dramatically lower prices for consumer data use.