Annie Hall’s Prescient Insight on ODNI and the Don’t Panic report

By Herb Lin
Saturday, May 14, 2016, 10:29 PM

Susan Landau’s post suggesting agreement rather than disagreement between the Don’t Panic report and the ODNI response to it brings to mind the dialog in the 1977 Woody Allen film Annie Hall. Recall that Alvy Singer and Annie Hall are a couple and they are seeing their therapists simultaneously:

Alvy Singer's Therapist: How often do you sleep together?

Alvy Singer: Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.

Annie Hall's Therapist: Do you have sex often?

Annie Hall: Constantly. I'd say three times a week.

Alvy and Annie agree on the facts. But it would be wrong to characterize them as being in agreement, because they disagree on the significance of those facts.

Don’t Panic and the ODNI letter largely agree on the facts, as Susan points out. But they disagree on the significance, a point that is reflected in the tone of each document.

It is impossible to read the Don’t Panic report without taking away the sense that the authors believe the law enforcement community is in a state of panic about the spread of encryption. Indeed, that sense of panic is what the report is trying to dispel. The report emphasized the fact that encryption was an insurmountable impediment in only some cases, and the bulk of the report pointed to a variety of reasons why this problem wasn’t likely to be as widespread as the common discourse would have the public believe.

ODNI was asked by Senator Wyden to respond to the report. It is impossible to read the ODNI letter without taking away the sense that ODNI believes the authors really doesn’t understand the seriousness of what will be lost through the widespread use of encryption. Indeed, that’s what the letter is trying to underscore.

Susan has two objections about the ODNI letter. First, she says it responds to a presumption about the content of Don’t Panic rather than what was actually there. She makes a compelling case that there is little factual dispute. But the ODNI letter is also responding to the tone of the Don’t Panic report as well.

Second, she says that ODNI's response was silent on what she asserts is “the crucial issue in the encryption debate: is widespread use of secure—non backdoored, frontdoored, exceptional access—encryption technologies in our national-security interest? That is the important issue—and not whether widespread use of encryption will make some investigations harder.” But ODNI wasn’t asked to address that broader issue – it was asked to respond to the Don’t Panic report, in which its authors themselves state that they did not “unanimously agree upon the scope of the problem or the policy solution that would strike the best balance.”

So – neither document addresses the issue in full. Not a surprise; the issue is complex. If I had been asked to do so, I would have endorsed the Don’t Panic report, with one major caveat – I would have objected to the title, and indeed Susan acknowledges that the admittedly provocative title was perhaps not the wisest choice. I would have endorsed the ODNI letter as well, but with two changes. I would have changed the sentence “the report makes three findings we think are incorrect” to “the report implies three conclusions that are misleading in some instances”, and I would have eliminated the sentence “With due respect to the authors, this is simply wrong.”

In my view, the Don’t Panic report, the ODNI response, and Susan’s commentary add meaningfully to the debate. So Hurrahs! for all.