Basic crypto errors and no public review at the Washington Post

The Washington Post doubled down this weekend on its ridiculous argument for new encryption that uses a “Golden Key” available only to law enforcement under a court order. This proposal has a few weaknesses; perhaps chief among them is that it is literally impossible.

Given that putative authorities like FBI Director James Comey are willing to ignore the reality of how cryptography works, it’s weird but understandable that the Washington Post could basically disregard the feedback from experts about the same. Still, to see the editorial board of such a major outlet to tell the nerds to get back to double-checking how math works is frustrating.

Compounding that frustration is the fact that the Washington Post has basically no public escalation track for review. The Post‘s reporting on cryptography issues can be very good, but when the editorial board makes serious factual mistakes, they go unchallenged.

The New York Times has Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who takes feedback from readers and says when the paper has erred. That’s not enough in itself—that the Times makes the same kinds of mistakes over and over is a pretty good indicator of its course correction ability—but it feels better than having no recourse. It also helps to defuse arguments from people (like Comey himself) who would cite the editorial approvingly if the paper’s own oversight has found problems with it.

The Post had an ombudsman until 2013, when they discontinued the role—over protests from former ombudsmen. They replaced it with a “reader representative,” who was a Post employee. The first person to hold the role was Doug Feaver, after he’d retired from an editorial role with 37 years at the paper. He held the reader rep spot for less than a year, when he left and was replaced by Alison Coglianese.

Doug Feaver was supposed to hold the paper accountable, but he did little of that. Per this Media Matters breakdown:

Of his 28 blog posts since April 5, 2013, 26 consisted simply of Feaver aggregating reader comments from Post articles and columns without additional commentary. The other two consisted of a piece declaring the paper free of any conflict of interest regarding the Post’s Jerusalem correspondent and Feaver’s initial post chronicling the initial inquiries he had received in his position (“the biggest issue to come to my attention was the disappearing print button on the article pages of”).

As far as I can tell, Coglianese only wrote one post as reader rep, about the stock and mutual fund listings accidentally being left out of the Sunday Business section one week. Searching her name on the site produces nothing more recent than that, and no announcements that the reader rep role had been discontinued. It just faded away.

So as it stands, there’s no public representative at the paper noting that the Post continues to propose a physical impossibility in its editorial pages. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine the conversation progressing intelligently while it continues to do so.

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