The shape of the discussion talking heads are plotting onto the contours of the internet is a bit alarming. Especially in regards to whether or not encryption should be "legal". Let's talk about one thing openly. Encryption is math. Math cannot be illegal.

Let's take a second to talk a little bit about what encryption actually is. I'm going to fight the urge to use analogies because as this guy has pointed out, analogies are not knowledge but the illusion of knowledge. And usually they aren't intelligible to anyone outside the group who invented them.

So having said that, I'm going to do my best not to liken encryption to a set of keys and locks, doors, or burritos. But first, some history.

Ciphers

The ancient Greeks were said to be the first people who used encryption. Every coded message was comprised of two parts: the message itself, and a cipher that decoded it. The most famous set was the scytale a stick of set diameter that, when a piece of parchment with a coded string of text was wrapped around it, the message was legible across the face of the stick.

This was a beautiful solution to the problem of keeping secrets from those not in-the-know. All the receiving party needed was a stick of the right diameter and they could decode any message. In the case of the scytale, "encryption" was writing the message in such a way that it would be unintelligible without having the right decoder stick.

Even if there was no stick, the message could still be encrypted. Encryption is the transformation of data. It can happen ad infinitum. And no one can really stop that any more than they can stop a person from adding 1 and 1.

And no one can really stop that any more than they can stop a person from adding 1 and 1.

Two computer scientists in the 80's named Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman broke new ground on a way to encrypt messages that ended the need to shuttle ciphers (sticks) back and forth. They invented something called "public-private-key-encryption", and (roughly) it works a little something like this. You encrypt a message using a "public" key--one that is available to anyone. Now this key cannot be used to decrypt the message, only your "private" key can. The genius is that the private key is derivative of the public key so it doesn't need the presence of the other to be effective.

Its as if the Greeks were able to rip off a piece of the encrypted parchment, roll it into a stick, and use it to decrypt the message. Dammit, I broke the rules.

Today

Various government agencies are crooning that they should be able to knock down whichever doors they please because they're the government. Not really a sound argument but… they're the government after all. The problem with this is that it inevitably involves creating a master cipher. Should the discussion turn to whether or not this is safe or worse, whether or not this is right is actually irrelevant. The important point here is that as soon as a master key is created, the purpose of encryption is lost. And this would be a travesty. For civilization.

No matter how free you think the Western liberal ideal makes man, that freedom is ultimately the child of monarchy. The right "to know" the government seems to have appropriated hearkens to a time when kings rules subjects at their leisure. These are times where people truly believed that it was "natural", even "divine" for a king to have complete control over the lives of his subjects. People did not have a right to their own lives, let alone their own secrets.

The right "to know" the government seems to have appropriated harkens to a time when kings rules subjects at their leisure.

The thrust behind the current encryption debate is not whether or encryption should be "allowed", its whether or not people should be able to have secrets.

And this is deeply troubling. Man, (or woman), has a fundamentally different view of him/herself than they might have had a few centuries ago when kings ruled the Earth. The individual has worth. The individual has rights. The individual has freedom. To do what he/she chooses and to keep whatever secrets they see fit. As much as the government might claim the right to know secrets is for the sake of safety, one cannot help but notice the complete lack of respect certain agencies have shown for a person's right to own their own information. It would also be remiss to forget the supreme lack of care said agencies have handled private information with in the past.

What's more is that, public safety not withstanding, the government need not damage an institution of digital communication under the guise of "protection". Human civilization has reached a point where the individual can bear the responsibility of caring for him/herself. The need for the collective protection from a medieval estate is neither fitting nor prudent in a modern technological age. It endangers all at very little profit. Just imagine if a Chinese hacker somehow found the US government's "master key". And knowing the incompetence of the federal government, this is bound to happen eventually. So why try to break something that doesn't need fixing?