The Case of the Amazon Echo in Historical Context

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The History of Encryption

Encryption was always a privilege that was jealously guarded.  During the Second World War, Churchill and Roosevelt deployed the finest minds to crack Nazi codes, when our predictable cognitive reach touched the inevitable glass ceiling, computers picked up the mathematical baton and decrypted codes hitherto unbreakable. This incredible achievement is immortalised in popular culture via the Imitation Game, Enigma, Codebreakers , and numerous documentaries and television series. Bletchley Park colours the landscape of our culture, a dazzling metonymy of ingenuity, invention, and technological progress.  In this version of unreality, the state presents itself in its best and most cordial dress, a figure of good raging against evil and bringing light to the broad Nazi shadow. Given the existential threat to the nation, the state was genius behind, and the master of, encryption.

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Bletchley Park: The First Powerful Computer Encryption Devices

The Digital Disruption upset the apple cart as encryption was democratised. Until the 1980’s, spies, generals, diplomats and intelligent officers were the sole owners of cryptography. That was to change drastically. Pondering the consequences of the growth of personal computers, a research assistant at Stanford University theorized the need for public encryption between two computers. This researcher was Wittfield Diffie and this proposal was called Public-Key Cryptography. Users could communicate safely without turning to a third-party like the government.  Today Diffie’s system affects every online merchant, touching us invisibly when we purchase from Amazon, Netflix, and Google Play, a digital angel on your shoulder.

The government has made strenuous efforts to regain its control over encryption. Understanding the fantastic destructive potential of anonymous communication the government designed to become the gate-keeper of the internet. The NSA wanted to classify Diffie’s work. Powerful government agencies believed encryption was a weapon of war and should remain under state control.  This became increasingly difficult, however. In the 1990s, as users became tech savvy and aware of the potential of outsiders listening to their phone-calls, encryption went main stream. The demands of the market over-ruled the interests of the state. Nonetheless, some push-back did occur; Bill Clinton introduced the Clip-Chip, an encryption device that allowed mobile phones to communicate safely. The down side is clear, however: Since the US Government provided the encryption they could listen into your phone calls at will. The attempt to regain the thrown was shot down and no consumer was, surprisingly, attracted to this invitation to arbitrary rule and potential digital totalitarianism.

9/11 Profoundly Alters the Encryption Dynamic

If encryption is a weapon of war then 9/11 altered the calculus of encryption politics.  The government declared a state of emergency and was now at war with international terrorism. As with previous wars legislation empowered the US government to run the war effectively. As Lincoln had done during the Civil War, Habeas Corpus was suspended, and raft of acts were passed by Congress, the most infamous being the Patriot Act.  The law extended further, however– mass surveillance.  When the NSA went to Silicon Valley with its begging bowl, the technology giants were willing partners. Email, phone calls, texts – everything that was ever sent across a network was stored.

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Snowden Revealed the Scale of the Problem

The pendulum of cryptography politics had violently shifted back toward the sovereign power. The American Government had access to an unfathomable deluge of information. Post 9-11, the government was exercising authority in unforeseen and unprecedented measures. Disgusted at this orgy, Edward Snowden sought to strike a silver bullet through the post 9/11 environment, where privacy was not protected. There was some degree of success. The scandal brought immense pressure on governments and technology corporations to amend their behavior. Google, Amazon, and Apple took note; customer privacy would be safe-guarded. They were, once again, the encryption brokers.

The Cryptography Wars Continue

Enter stage left the Amazon Echo and Apple, the Bentonville Police Department and the FBI; these two incidents represent government agencies attempting to over-turn the post Snowden environment and regain encryption supremacy. In the first case, an Amazon Echo was called as a witness by Bentonville Police, Arkansas. The authorities accuse James Bates of murdering his friend, Victor Williams, by strangulation and drowning. According to Bates, he, Williams and few friends had some beers and went to bed, when he awoke Williams was dead.  The police investigated and suspected foul play; they discovered broken bottles and blood around the bath.  They gained a warrant to search the premises and amongst the items taken was an Amazon Echo, which has ignited a legal tussle between Amazon.com and Bentonville Police.  The police have demanded that all information on the Echo be turned over as evidence.  For example, should it transpire that the Amazon Echo was used between 1am and 8am then that would refute the accused’ s story.

Amazon refuse to bow to the authorities while the authorities believe the Echo could hold incriminating evidence. According to the Washington Post the affidavit stated:

“The Amazon Echo device is constantly listening for the ‘wake’ command of ‘Alexa’ or Amazon,’ and records any command, inquiry, or verbal gesture given after that point, or possibly at all times without the ‘wake word’ being issued, which is uploaded to Amazon.com’s servers at a remote location,”

The possibility that the Amazon Echo is listening at all times is pure conjecture.  There is no evidence to support this claim. Authorities have been known to guild the lily, however. In 1990’s, the infamous hacker, Kevin Mitnick, was refused bail because the prosecutor argued that Mitnick, using only a telephone, could hack into NORAD and fire an ICBM at Russia.  A preposterous proposition.   The Amazon Echo is an important development in the encryption wars.

 

 

 

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