January 2017

Volume 32 Number 1

[Don't Get Me Started]

For the Defense

By David Platt | January 2017

David PlattI find that one of the coolest things about teaching is meeting interesting people and introducing them to you. To Apollo program computer designer Hugh Blair-Smith (msdn.com/magazine/mt703442) and rescue leader Gisli Olafsson (msdn.com/magazine/dn818503), I now add defense attorney Owen Walker.

Owen was a student in one of my earliest classes, back in 1994, (16-bit Windows SDK in C, with Charles Petzold as a text). Harvard Extension School is proud of its broad reach, so it didn’t surprise me that he was a lawyer rather than a programmer. (I’ll save the French diplomat story for another day.) He joined the class because he wanted to write an add-in for Microsoft Word to help him fill out his expense reports. He didn’t know C, but had just enough Pascal to get confused (:= versus = for assignment, = versus == for comparison). He worked so hard I don’t even want to think about it, even now 20-plus years later, and earned his A.

Owen worked in the Federal Public Defender Office in Boston. Over beer one night after class, I asked why he spent his professional life defending bad guys, most of whom are guilty as heck. He said, “Yes, but some really are innocent, others, perhaps guilty of some moral infraction, are not technically guilty of a crime. But it’s bigger than that: I don’t want the cops just kicking down any door that they want to and dragging anyone away. I don’t mind seeing bad guys caught and locked up, but I need to see it done by the book. If the prosecution can legally find evidence to prove guilt to a jury beyond reasonable doubt, fine. My job is to make sure they all do their jobs. Not for the benefit of the defendants, but for all of society.”

Owen later became the Federal Public Defender for Boston, the constitutional official, paid for by your taxes and mine, responsible for getting defendants a fair shake. That position is often unpopular, sometimes quite deeply. In the performance of those constitutional duties, Owen defended shoe bomber Richard Reid (see nyti.ms/2fuTv7E). He retired in 2005.

I called him up recently to hear his thoughts on the tussles playing out today between collective security and individual privacy. For example, after the San Bernardino shootings last spring, the FBI captured the main shooter’s iPhone and wanted to examine its contents. Unfortunately, the phone’s internal storage was encrypted and the FBI couldn’t easily crack it. So they went to court, trying to force Apple to do so, which Apple strongly resisted (see bit.ly/2eXAvux).

Owen disapproves of Apple’s resistance, writing in a recent article that, “[Apple’s] refusal to help the government decrypt the San Bernardino cell phone was, in my view, shocking, in view of the fact that getting access to the information might have revealed plans for ongoing violent terrorism.” That particular case became moot when the FBI finally did manage to crack it with help from some serious geeks (see bit.ly/2f1IGJJ), but the underlying dilemma remains unresolved.

Apple and Google are now said to be developing communication security that even they can’t break, even if they wanted to. That concerns many people, who think that the companies should be required to incorporate a back door open for lawful government access—­requiring a warrant, issued by a judge, under strict guidelines.

Owen is one of these concerned parties. He writes that “lawful wiretapping authorized by a judge has been a key element to public safety, and has resulted in a vast number of serious criminals going to prison. Apple and Google, by absolute encryption, are making wiretapping impossible.”

It’s easy to respond with the knee-jerk, “When encryption is outlawed, only outlaws will encrypt,” or, “Fear the government that fears your phone.” And the slippery slope problem is obvious. But when a guy who puts it on the line to defend bad guys, not for their sake but for ours and our country’s, thinks otherwise, we should probably at least give his ideas a good look.

David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.

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