Math denialism: crypto backdoors and DRM are the alternative medicine of computer science

My latest Guardian column, The FBI wants a backdoor only it can use – but wanting it doesn’t make it possible, draws a connection between vaccine denial, climate denial, and the demand for backdoors in secure systems, as well as the call for technologies that prevent copyright infringement, like DRM.

The thing all these issues share is that the relevant scientific communities view them as settled questions: vaccines don't cause autism, humans are warming the world, you can't make a copy-proof bit, and you can't make a backdoor that only good guys can fit through.

But in policy circles, each of these is still viewed as controversial, though the backers of the controversy have different motives and power relationships. My column examines two interventions that have made a difference in climate and vaccine denial, and asks what we might do about mathematical denial.

Computers only ever work by making copies: restricting copying on the internet is like restricting wetness in water. Nevertheless, big corporations with hawk-eyed activist investors get away with buying “digital rights management” technologies that purport to prevent unauthorized copying.

Cryptographers (who don’t work for DRM companies) think this is ridiculous, the alternative medicine of computer science. But just as the NHS funds homeopathic “medicine” in public hospitals, legislatures continue to treat digital locks as going concerns, because orthodoxy and political expedience demands it. The entertainment industry is a powerful adversary, the security services are more powerful still.

It’s tempting to play along with them here, offer them more magic beans in the form of backdoors that we pretend only the good guys can fit through, or in the form of purportedly copy-proof bits, but the stakes are awfully high, and climbing steadily.

The FBI wants a backdoor only it can use – but wanting it doesn’t make it possible [Cory Doctorow/The Guardian]

Notable Replies

  1. Next thing we know, they'll try to legislate the value of Pi

    Oh, wait...

    (Yes, I know that the nominal purpose of the bill was to recognize a method for squaring the circle, but implicit in that (flawed) method was the value of Pi being set at 3.2)

  2. can't make a backdoor that only good guys can fit through.

    Sure you can. Just ask all users to verify their goodness by asking a series of tough moral and ethical questions. Good people will have no difficulty - their gut reactions will always be right. Bad people will wrestle with the issues long enough to allow the guards to capture and imprison them.


  3. While what you say is uh. Somewhat true it's definitely not entirely true. There's a lot of "alternative" medicine that has been proven bunk but people still go to it because placebo. Placebos make these things seem like they might be working a lot of the time. Sure, SOME alternative medicine appears to have been proven at least slightly medically valid (acupuncture for example seems to have some studies done that suggest it can help with pain more than a placebo) But things like homeopathy...? .... .... yeah no.

    EDIT: Realized I should link back to the original story in that this is a perfect example of why they ARE kinda connected. People are convinced they work even when there's little to no evidence (or evidence against!) alternative medicine works. Same thing going on with crypto back doors. People are convinced they can work and be safe.. when really... they can't. At all.

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