A House of Cards is Better than a House of Glass

(Last Updated On: 2020-03-14)

Likening the internet to a house of cards is a fair analogy.  The internet is fragile in many obvious ways.  Sites may load slowly or fail to load at all.  Errors are sometimes encountered at unexpected times.  The list goes on.  From the perspective of the average user the internet is also janky.  Sites are inconsistent in their appearance.  User experiences are often broken for the sake of shoehorning advertisements and tracking scripts.  I think this experience makes it easy to be dismissive about the importance of privacy and security on the internet.

A more refined analogy to the internet is a house of cards held together with tape.  Responsible stewards of technological experiences take steps to protect your privacy.  The backbone of this effort is encryption.  As an American it is hard not to view encryption as the tool of the enemy due to the American historical narrative of World War II.  During the war, the sneaky Germans used a device known as an Enigma Machine to conceal their communications from the Allies.  For example, the historically liberated film U-571 depicts how Matthew McConaughey and Jon Bon Jovi intercepted a German U-Boat to steal the Enigma Machine and cypher keys that were stowed on board to change the course of the war and save the world from the bad guys.

This kind of depiction makes it easy to conjure up images of men in trench coats leaving notes under the legs of dimly lit park benches or the Zodiac killer whenever someone mentions encryption.  In reality, you use encryption every day and might not even realize it.  When you visit the website to view your bank balance you are prompted for your password.  During this exchange you encounter encryption in at least two different ways.  If your bank is doing there job right, when you click the button that says “Log In” after you enter your password, your password is encrypted in a way that only allows your bank to decode it.  Additionally, if your bank is doing their job right, your password is verified against what is known as a “hash”.  That is a weird way to say your bank doesn’t actually store your password.  Instead, they use an algorithm to encrypt your password and store the hash.  The hash is the encrypted value.  The only way to decrypt that hash is to supply the original value that was used to create it.  Your password.

With this knowledge, ask yourself two questions.  First, will you still be willing to continue to use your bank’s website if you know that anyone that wanted to could intercept the password you use to log in to your bank?  Second, will you still be willing to use your bank’s website if you know that your bank cannot prevent nefarious actors from obtaining your password?  If you answered yes either of those questions you have found a reason to care about encryption.

The internet may be a house of cards today.  However, ethical actors make an effort to strategically apply a very strong tape to the cards to protect your privacy.  That tape is encryption.

Without encryption, the internet is a house of glass.  Anyone can observe your every move.  Anyone can obtain your secrets.  Are you willing to live in a house of glass?  Of course, this is an absurd question.  A house of glass is expensive and neither of us have the money for that.  Perhaps a better question is, if a law was proposed that requires you to remove all of your window dressings to ensure that no form of child abuse can occur in your home unobserved, will you support it?  If the answer to this question is yes, I encourage you to close this page and remove all window dressings in your house without delay.  Failure to do so may result in some people tossing around harsh words like “ambivalent” or “hypocrite” in regards to your stance on the matter.

This example may sound extreme, however, an internet without encryption is exactly that.  A glass house.  Windows without curtains.  Everything you do is exposed from your bank password to your Twilight fan fiction writing.  You are not doing anything illegal.  You are not one of the “bad guys”.  All the same, there are plenty of things about your life that frankly are none of anyone else’s business.  The founding fathers of the United States felt that privacy is so important that the right to privacy is encoded in the legal foundation of the United States via the Fourth Amendment.  Everyone needs encryption to protect their privacy.  Do not allow the false narrative about encryption to become the thief of your constitutional rights.