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The encryption fight isn't about Apple, it's about all of us

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couple walking on beach
couple walking on beach
Lisa Brewster

The FBI's demand for a backdoor into iPhones and CEO Tim Cook's strenuous rebuttal in an open letter caused such large ripples that I couldn't help but feel them here, on my honeymoon in the Dominican Republic. I've been exhorted by my co-workers and friends to just unplug and experience the beach and the sun unmediated by technology, to disconnect, to just relax.

But I can’t, because the FBI’s unprecedented demand has me thinking about what it means to talk to one another in private, and how lucky we are right now that we can do it across vast distances. The lines of debate have already been cast as a clash of titans: Apple vs. The Government! Donald Trump vs. Tim Cook! Several corporations and CEOs have chimed in with support for Apple and encryption — though, it must be said, not as strongly as they ought to.

But to think of encrypted communications as a fight between corporations and the government is to tragically miss the point. It's short-sighted about what these tools are and what they can mean to each and every one of us. This isn’t about Apple or the iPhone; it’s about how we, as humans, have extended ourselves with technology and how precious that is.

Somehow the fact that this fight involves new technology has caused us to become myopic about what it is we’re actually doing with it: talking to one another, privately, without fear of being surveilled. We have in the palms of our hands the ability to speak to each other across time and space as though we were whispering to each other in our rooms. And yet because it involves complicated new technologies we assume it must therefore require complicated new rules.

Because this new way of communicating happened so fast, it’s easy to forget that it’s a kind of miracle. It could have gone another way — our email and our web browsing and our phone calls and any number of other communication activities are routinely examined by corporations and governments alike. And yet we have iMessage, and Telegram, and lots of other spaces that are free from that intervention.

Private communication is a freedom. Just because we have found a way to mediate it with technology doesn't make it any less personal, private, or precious than words spoken in our homes. It is the very fact of encryption that makes it possible to put communicating over the internet in the same category as our most secret conversations. The internet has allowed us to extend an essential part of what it means to be human across the entire planet. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean that it isn’t as valuable as the rest of what makes us human.

Those who have called for breaking of that encryption through a backdoor seem to think that there is some essential difference between a private conversation in person and a private conversation over the internet. I don't think that there is. And to ask that we threaten this amazing new freedom is to threaten the original freedom.

People of goodwill will argue that in the light of horror like the shootings in San Bernardino, we can make a one-time exception to pry into a monster's private communication. But it won't be just a window into their life — it will become a window into all our lives. If this issue weren't wound up in technology, terror, and politics, would you really be okay with such a window? Or more to the point: to a microphone in your most private spaces?

If we don't, all of us as human, find the courage to say "no" in this instance, do we really know when will we find it? If we demand the backdoor here, now, where will the new line be? I don't think anybody has anything approaching a coherent answer to that question. And truly, I don't know that there is one except that there will be no line, the government will listen to you.

Companies like Apple and WhatsApp created these new ways to be human. And they also have the resources to fight something as big as the government on this issue. So it’s easy to treat this like just another big This vs. That news story fight.

But no, this isn't just about Apple vs. the FBI. It is about how we extend ourselves as humans across the vast distances that separate us. Encrypted communication is the future of how we will talk to each other, intimately, without fear. Private communication is part of what makes us human in our living rooms. We should fight for that same humanity on the internet.