The temptation of easy vs. dangerous complexity

To anyone (like me) who remembers what daily life was like in pre-Internet/pre-mobile phone days, the technological innovations of the past 20 years or so appear — no, are — mind-blowingly wonderful. And new developments just on the horizon — artificial intelligence in particular — sound almost magical in their potential capabilities.

Indeed, to the vast majority of us who don’t really understand how the cellphones in our pockets, the tablets on our laps or the apps on our mobile devices work, these technologies are practically magic in action. For the most part, we don’t question what complex inner workings enable them to let us do the things we do … we’re just glad we can do them.

But for all the benefits our tools and gadgets bring us today, their built-in and opaque-to-most-of-us complexity also brings danger. Our growing ignorance about how the things we rely on work makes us vulnerable to being misled by people who actually do understand their complexity … or to becoming marks for people who exploit that ignorance.

You don’t have to look hard to find examples of that danger today. Look, for example, at the battle now coming to a boil between Apple and the FBI.

Apple has made customer security via end-to-end encryption a cornerstone of its business model. The company’s message, since iOS 8 was released, has been: ‘Your iPhone’s data will be safe from hackers, thieves and even us, because you and only you hold the password to unlock it.” Implicit in that message is the underlying idea that, ‘You don’t have to understand HOW iPhone security works, just THAT it works.’

The FBI’s experts, on the other hand, understand both HOW it works and THAT it works, and now — through a court order compelling Apple to break the security of one iPhone, the one the FBI is holding that belonged to San Bernardino terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook — they want Apple to show them how to make it NOT work.

Easy, right? People like Donald Trump want you to believe so. But, as with almost everything, the reality of what the FBI is asking here is far more complex than many want you to think. Digital forensics expert Jonathan Zdziarski explains the whys of that complexity in this sober and well-reasoned blog post better than almost anybody else whose analysis on this case I’ve read.

Consider too that U.S. Congressman Ted Lieu (D, California), who is an actual expert on computer science (one of only four in Congress), has come out on Apple’s side in this case, arguing that “weakening our cyber security is not the answer.” As a computer expert, Lieu understands that forcing Apple to break the security of this one iPhone threatens the potential security of all of our devices … and not just through snooping by the FBI alone. This move lets a genie out of the bottle that can’t be put back in, and there are many other actors — repressive governments, hackers, thieves, terrorists and so on — who will be eager to call on that genie for their own purposes.

Asserting that this isn’t so, and suggesting that this is an “easy” and one-time-only request for Apple, sounds sensible if you don’t understand — or choose to ignore — the complex nature of today’s technological systems, software, encryption methods and security applications. And, because things ARE so complex, most people don’t fully understand. Even people who think they do because they understand a little bit of technology (this Salon Q-and-A is a good example of that) don’t get it in the way that the technology experts get it.

The problem is that the people who don’t really get it also include legislators who make laws on such issues, judges who rule on such issues and politicians who see opportunity in exploiting those issues.

What’s the solution? Better education is definitely one answer: if more people learned even basic science and coding, they’d be less susceptible to junk science and junk tech talk. Another answer lies with better communication by the people who understand best the ins and outs of our complex technologies; we need more voices who can speak clearly and compellingly to the public about tech like Carl Sagan did and Neil Degrasse Tyson does today for science.

It’s important to remember that, while “easy” is tempting, dealing with complexity — in technology, in science, in medicine, in life — is hard. We need to embrace that difficulty, not look for easy fixes where none exists.


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