Yes we can (improve the security of our e-communications)

Instead of preventing Obama from using e-mail and his Blackberry, we should use this as an opportunity to move the whole country forward in terms of the security of our electronic communications.

You must protect yourself from those evil marketing rays
There’ve been various mutterings about the fact that Obama may have to give us his electronic communications tools like e-mail and his Blackberry due to both security and transparency concerns. However, as Summatus Mentis points out:

You know what this means right? It means that there are 14 year olds that are more connected than our president is currently.

Not to mention 8 and 10 year olds.

Yup, this whole no-e-mail thing seems pretty messed up. You’d think that the full resources of the United States ought to be able to do better than sending the poor fellow into the IT stone age as his reward for being elected to the highest office in the land. What I’d really rather see is some of that “Yes we can” attitude applied to this problem, both because I think it makes sense for the way that Obama works and because it has the potential to improve the security and sensibility of everyone’s IT usage.

At the moment, for example, most people’s use of e-mail is pretty haphazard and insecure. Almost no one is using digital signatures, so forging e-mail is all too easy, which then makes certain kinds of phishing scams far easier to perpetrate. Widespread use of a proper signature system would in fact make large quantities of e-mail spam trivial to identify, as messages that didn’t bear a certified signature could be discarded without further consideration. Similarly, there are quality (if greatly underused) tools that allow us to encrypt important e-mails in such a way that they can’t be (easily) read by anyone other than the intended recipient.

What better opportunity, then, to do better?

A politician (including a President) has many important roles, and one of those is to help inform and educate the public on matters of significance. And this isn’t a matter of elitism, it’s a simple matter of access to resources. There are lots of things that I recognize are probably “important”, but don’t have the time or resources to become expert on. One would presume that if the President labeled something as “important” whole staffs could pop into existence to study the issue, generate summary reports and recommendations, etc.

Here, then, we have a chance for Obama to say that he doesn’t want to lose his electronic tools, and bring the scientific and technological resources to bear to secure and archive those transactions as required by his office. The process itself should be transparent, as the best security is obtained through transparent use of high-quality algorithms and tools, which then means that many of the benefits of this analysis and research can be shared more widely. If, for example, the President started using digital signatures on his public messages, you can bet that all the hip kids (i.e., the people that will be running the world in 10 years) would be installing the software needed to check those signatures at warp factor 9. Then they’d start signing their messages, and the snowball would be off down the mountainside.

These sorts of technologies depend heavily on a perceived use — people aren’t going to adopt X until they perceive that enough other people are using X to make it worth their while. As a small fry, I can adopt all I want and rant ’til I’m blue, but I don’t have the necessary weight to pull much of anyone along with me. Obama, on the other hand, can have a profound influence through fairly simple actions.

This could also open up a wonderful public discussion of security in general, which impacts everything from Facebook to ATM PINs to electronic voting machines, things that are woven deep into the fabric of our social, economic, and political lives. Things that matter, but which we take for granted or ignore.

So now’s the time — likely the best time ever — to move us all forward instead of holding our newly elected President back.

Yes we can.

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