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  • Last modified 276 days ago (Oct. 19, 2023)

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Journalists aren't the ones who are yellow

Courage or cowardice. They’re often the difference between enlightened stewardship and confused bureaucracy.

The fantasyland in which most public officials are forced to function is filled with exasperating edicts, self-serving sales pitches, and addled advice from agencies, vendors, and so-called experts.

Buffeted bureaucrats often accept these without question, consciously or unwittingly picking the pockets of taxpayers and stripping democracy of rights in the process.

Legitimate leaders are unafraid to challenge supposed necessities, examine motives, and demand answers.

A recent mandate from the FBI to protect the privacy of information in criminal databases is a prime example. Salespeople looking to make a buck and officials looking to expand their empires of equipment have blindly accepted the mandate as requiring new, highly encrypted radios for law enforcement.

Their lack of courage to challenge the regulations will cost taxpayers a pretty penny at the same time as it tarnishes one of the most important coins of the realm — openness and transparency in government.

Ignore for a moment that the rights supposedly being protected are primarily those of career criminals. Only an extremely small portion of information transmitted over law enforcement radios involves checks made via the specific databases covered by the mandate. Not only are background checks infrequent; most are done through other databases.

It’s not that new radios are needed to finally be able to encrypt these transmissions. Current radios already possess encryption. Until a handful of years ago, encryption available in these radios was considered so safe that nuclear launch codes were protected by it. In fact, computer scientists say, it would take more than a million years for a hacker or code breaker to use brute force to break the encryption.

The new radios that all of us are about to pay for will encrypt to a standard twice as strong, needing two million years rather than just one million to break. Having the higher standard available might be a great thing to recommend for future radio purchases, but requiring perfectly good radios to be tossed aside is the type of exasperating edict that enlightened officials should courageously challenge rather than cowardly accept.

The mandate does not actually require encrypted radios. It merely says that when certain information is transmitted, it must be encrypted to a certain standard. Already, local police use an encrypted channel when they want to keep something confidential. They also all have government cell phones, which they routinely use for confidential matters.

Using a cell phone to transmit database information is perfectly permissible under the FBI mandate. Instead of buying new radios, police could do that. And instead of forcing immediate compliance with the so-called AES-256 encryption standard instead of the AES-128 police already use, Congress, the Biden administration, or the courts could change this, requiring AES-256 only for newly purchased radios.

Most troubling is that this whole affair seems to be fanning the flames of secrecy within law enforcement. Police now are talking about encrypting not just database inquiries but all transmissions, ending the public’s ability to monitor what they are doing.

Yes, criminals can monitor police frequencies. But that’s what having cell phones and a single encrypted channel for truly sensitive conversations handles. There’s no need to encrypt all police transmissions and deny the public one of the few ways it possesses to police our policing.

Gee, would a cop ever do something wrong? The vast majority of law enforcement officers never would be so stupid or malicious that we would need safeguards like public monitoring of police frequencies. But as those of us in the Marion County Record newsroom are all too aware, society is never more than one bad hire away from bringing on a public official who might abuse the broad authority granted him, thereby justifying whatever safeguards society can erect to protect against it.

The same holds true for declaring city websites to be newspapers. Current officials never would sneak unauthorized changes into officially approved documents after the fact. But we’re never more than one hire away from someone who might. The guarantee of having a permanent, independent record of what government does is the safeguard that prevents potential disastrous outcomes to democracy.

And why did that happen? Only because it served the interests of some out-of-town firm that leaches off local taxpayers to sell more debt. The firm thought it would be “safe” to attack our newspaper because the paper functions in a competitive market. Representatives admitted they thought they were going against an easy target in conning Hillsboro to abandon the Star-Journal and instead use a system easily corrupted, one not unlike the state’s judicial record keeping system, which has been hacked and down for more than a week.

Officials who refuse to question, challenge, and apply commonsense to the overreach of regulators and advisers aren’t serving the public. Rather they are pushing our democracy down a slippery slope toward a system our forebears fought countless wars to protect us against — all because they lack courage to consider facts and challenge what others want them to do.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Oct. 19, 2023

 

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