Monday, July 17, 2017

Encryption, security, the internet, and King Canute

Legend has it that King Canute, a canny and highly successful ruler of England,
Huts and seashore in Wales
Denmark, and parts of Scandinavia, had courtiers who like to flatter him; when some at court suggested that even the sea would have to obey Canute's wisdom and power, the king decided he had enough of this nonsense, and resolved to end it with a demonstration. He and his court accordingly went to the sea shore, and there Canute gave order to the incoming tide to cease, desist, and turn around. The tide, naturally, did no such thing. Having demonstrated his limits, he finished with an admonition to keep the flattery within the bounds of reality, and the court returned to the capital, doubtless to the relief of the chastened courtiers.

If the BBC story on the latest sally by a government against encryption, this time by the Australians, accurately reflects that government's position, the Australian Prime Minister could definitely benefit from the example of King Canute. The BBC quotes Mr. Turnbull as saying "The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia."

OK then. Meanwhile, back in reality, powerful ciphering algorithms and the computers to implement these all exist. Whatever we may feel about living in a world where the power of government to keep us secure falls considerably short of omnipotence, we do live in that world. Politicians who gobble with outrage when forced to accept limits on their power to intercept and read all communications only make themselves look ridiculous.

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