Leaders’ STEM education determines stance on iPhone encryption case

Robert Hannigan

Robert Hannigan

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Robert Hannigan head of Britain’s NSA equivalent agency the GCHQ, finally stopped asking for a backdoor to encrypted devices. Instead he called for an end to what he called the “abuse of encryption” by ISIS and other terrorists and criminals at the MIT Internet Policy Research Initiative, according to a report by the MIT Technology Review.

Hannigan wasn’t getting what he wanted by calling it a backdoor so he changed the name for building flawed encryption that law enforcement can exploit to “ending the abuse of encryption.” Hannigan’s attempt to use speechwriters and political spin to solve a mathematical problem is a fool’s errand.

Asked for his thoughts about policy makers asking mathematicians and cryptographers for the impossible cryptographer and computer security and privacy expert Bruce Schneier said: "It always worries me when people say that we need to find some kind of compromise between law and technology. Technology is reality. It doesn't change based on some compromise. Technologists need to work with policy makers to create policies that work within the realistic bounds of the technology."

Law enforcement officials' STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education or lack of it predict which side of the encryption debate they will choose. Hannigan could only make this statement without feeling horribly embarrassed because he has a STEM blind spot in his education. Anyone who has taken a year of college linear algebra knows that private citizens, enterprises, law enforcement and the military can’t protect data with encryption while preventing abuse of encryption. It is just a binary 1’s and 0’s situation with nothing in between these two states.

In stark contrast to Hannigan, last week the US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told a packed auditorium of security professionals at the RSA Conference that he did not believe in a backdoor. Carter also contradicted the positions of US Attorney General Loretta Lynch and FBI Director James Comey who also have tech-education blind spots on their resumes summarized below.

Robert Hannigan UK Director GCHQ studied classics at Wadham College, Oxford according to the Irish Post.

Loretta Lynch US Attorney General attended Harvard College, earning her bachelor’s in literature in 1981, and then opted to stay on with the university, graduating from Harvard Law School in 1984 according to biography.com.

James Comey US FBI Director attended the College of William and Mary where he studied chemistry and religion and later studied law at the University of Chicago, according to an interview by New York Magazine. Apparently Comey’s greater strengths were qualitative rather than quantitative because his senior thesis at the College of William and Mary was on religion not chemistry.

Ashton Carter US Secretary of Defense earned bachelor degrees summa cum laude in physics and medieval history from Yale University and as a Rhodes Scholar he received his doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford University, where he was later a physics instructor, according to the Department of Defense’s website . He worked as an experimental research associate at Brookhaven and Fermilab National Laboratories.

Carter can’t be imagined to say that he wanted to end the abuse of encryption because all his common sense gained by studying the world as a physicist would have made him wince at the thought. Less scientifically and mathematically gifted Lynch, Comey and Hannigan can rely on their beliefs that if challenged cryptographers can change the fundamental principles of mathematics.  

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