David Baron's Weblog

The need for government

Sunday, 2015-03-29, 15:50 -0700

I've become concerned about the attitudes towards government in the technology industry. It seems to me (perhaps exaggerating a little) that much of the effort in computer security these days considers the major adversary to be the government (whether acting legally or illegally), rather than those attempting to gain illegal access to systems or information (whether private or government actors).

Democracy requires that the government have power. Not absolute power, but some, limited, power. Widespread use of technology that makes it impossible for the government to exercise certain powers could be a threat to democracy.

Let's look at one recent example: a recent article in the Economist about ransomware: malicious software that encrypts files on a computer, whose authors then demand payment to decrypt the files. The payment demanded these days is typically in Bitcoin, a system designed to avoid the government's power. This means that Bitcoin avoids the mechanisms that the international system has to find and catch criminals by following the money they make, and thus makes a perfect system for authors of ransomware and other criminals. The losers are those who don't have the mix of computer expertise and luck needed to avoid the ransomware.

One of the things that democracies often try to do is to protect the less powerful. For example, laws to protect property (in well-functioning governments) protect everybody's property, not just the property of those who can defend their property by force. Having laws like these not only (often) provides a fairer chance for the weak, but it also lets people use their labor on things that can improve people's lives rather than on zero-sum fighting over existing resources. Technology that keeps government out risks making it impossible for government to do this.

I worry that things like ransomware payment in Bitcoin could be just the tip of the iceberg. Technology is changing society quickly, and I don't think this will be the only harmful result of technology designed to keep government out. I don't want the Internet to turn into a “wild west,” where only the deepest experts in technology can survive. Such a change to the Internet risks either giving up many of the potential benefits of the Internet for society by keeping important things off of it, or alternatively risks moving society towards anarchy, where there is no government power that can do what we have relied on governments to do for centuries.

Now I'm not saying today's government is perfect; far from it. Government has responsibility too, including to deserve the trust that we need to place in it. I hope to write about that more in the future.