The FBI and the Fourth-Grader

  • By Ronald Goldfarb
  • April 1, 2016

A fictional interlude





It wasn’t until 6 a.m. that I returned from my job at the FBI, exhausted from weeks of around-the-clock work trying to solve the battle over Apple's embargo of what we believed was critical encrypted evidence of terrorism. More fallout from Mr. Snowden's recent caper.

My wife greeted me, solicitous of my weary state, and began to prepare breakfast. Then my 9-year-old, Nathaniel, came down to join us before going off to school.

"Hi, son," I said, hugging him.

"Hi, Dad," he replied. “Where have you been this week? I haven’t seen you at all."

"Working on a big case," I replied, keeping my cards hidden. Not stuff for kids.

Nathaniel was casual, started his cereal, and then asked, "Is it about that case I saw mentioned on TV?"

"Kind of," I answered, not wanting to continue this technical, sensitive conversation with my child.

"I know about that encryption stuff," Nathaniel said, as if he were talking about everyday matters. "We had a special day in my class on privacy on computers."

Smirking, I asked, "And so you know how to solve this difficult problem that has baffled all the experts, Mr. Bigshot?"

"Yeah," he answered. "All you have to do to enter back doors is have the key, and every lock has some key." He dismissed my quandary as if it were SO obvious, he couldn’t understand what the problem was.

“Show me," I challenged him, not to be cynical but to make him see how complex some things are. I took an example, kind of a metaphor for the issue, and, typing an encrypted message on my computer, said, "While I finish my coffee, you break into the hidden message.”

Nathaniel leaned over from his seat at the counter, looked at the screen for less than a minute, clicked something, and slid the computer back to me. "There."

"Jeez!" I screamed. He did it!

“Come with me, Mister," I shouted, as my wife looked at me, stunned. "We're going to my office."

"I can’t," Nathaniel said. "I have school."

"Not today,” I answered, sweeping up my files and pulling my prodigy with me out the door.

"Is it ‘bring your son to work’ day?" Nathaniel asked, as we got into my car.

"Kind of," I replied.

As we left, my wife called out, "Wouldn’t it be funny if Apple asked for Nathaniel's formula for breaking the encryption?"

"Let them try,” I responded. “Just let them try.”

Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington, DC, attorney and author of several books on criminal justice and media. His most recent book is After Snowden: Privacy, Secrecy, and Security in the Information Age. His column, CapitaLetters, appears regularly in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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