fbiPhone: This Violates Your Privacy. Again. - WhoWhatWhy

fbiPhone: This Violates Your Privacy. Again.

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The FBI says it can’t crack the iPhone.

The FBI says it can’t crack the iPhone.

FBI Director James Comey is no fan of the latest iPhones.

In fact, where millions around the world are drooling over Apple’s latest mobile phone, Comey sees a “black hole” where criminals can hide beyond the reach of the FBI. Public safety, of course, is at risk from this phenomenon that Comey dubbed “Going Dark” in the very same speech in which he proclaimed that he is no scaremonger.

The newest hobgoblin we’re being asked to fear is the advanced encryption in the iPhone and Google’s Android devices. It is so strong that the FBI can’t break it and the companies themselves can’t get in, so it’s like a closet that can’t be unlocked, Comey said. And the FBI needs to be able to break it when it has a court order, or else criminals and terrorists might get away.

Apple and Google are reacting to market demand for greater privacy caused by Edward Snowden’s revelations of NSA snooping. But “the place they are leading us is one we shouldn’t go to without careful thought and debate as a country,” he said.

That’s a statement hermetically sealed off from history, since we have been down this road before. And privacy won. It’s also out of touch with the present state of encryption technology, and the FBI’s own prior public stance toward data protection.

The Government’s New Godzilla

Start with this fact—encryption tools exist in myriad forms, free to anyone with an Internet connection. And the FBI is on the record encouraging people and businesses to use it to protect their personal and business data from foreign hackers and governments. As well it should be, since there have been three major data breaches this year including one into the faux Fort Knox cybervaults of J.P. Morgan.

So why target Apple and Google? To make life easier for FBI agents who are stuck with what Comey called inefficient and costly legal means of investigation. If companies build encryption with no means of interception, it would leave “the government at a dead end—all in the name of privacy and network security,” Comey said.

FBI Director James Comey.

FBI Director James Comey.

It’s notable that Comey made this assertion the centerpiece of his first law-enforcement policy speech, delivered today at the Brookings Institution and perfunctorily leaked in advance to the New York Times.

The speech is part of a growing drumbeat from the national security machinery that claims that encryption is, like any threat the government decides to describe as the new Godzilla, a mortal one. Comey is preparing to ask Congress to change the wiretap laws to reflect modern technology, so his motive is abundantly clear.


You’ve got to give Comey credit—he employed the phrase “FOMO,” or fear of missing out, to make his case:

With Going Dark, those of us in law enforcement and public safety have a major fear of missing out—missing out on predators who exploit the most vulnerable among us…missing out on violent criminals who target our communities…missing out on a terrorist cell using social media to recruit, plan, and execute an attack.

Then he described a series of cases where encryption could have prevented arrests. Among the crimes he mentioned were two involving children: a beating death of a two-year-old girl and the murder of a 12-year-old by a known sex offender.

To be sure that never happens, the FBI needs a front door—not a back door—that Google, Apple and others should provide, Comey said.

The notion that the marketplace could create something that would prevent that closet from ever being opened, even with a properly obtained court order, makes no sense to me.

It does make sense, however, to the companies in Silicon Valley, which went through a similar debate two decades ago. Back then, the government proposed the “Clipper chip” backdoor and lost the battle resoundingly. Now, federal law explicitly protects the right of companies to create encryption without a backdoor.

“We have, as a country, decided that people should be able to encrypt their information and should be able to control it,” Jeremy Gillula, a staff technologist with the Electronic Freedom Foundation, told WhoWhatWhy. Comey’s attempt to reopen the debate is unfortunate, he said.

The EFF in the 1990s litigated the landmark case which established that encryption programs are protected speech under the First Amendment. Prior to that, encryption technology was classified a munition subject to government regulation.

Nothing to Fear But FOMO Itself

The stakes for Silicon Valley are higher this time around, because of the impact of the Snowden leaks. The loss of confidence in American companies as a result may cost them as much as $35 billion in the next two years.

And as others have pointed out, if American companies buckle to U.S. government demands to weaken privacy protection, countries with no privacy protections will demand similar access. That would in turn cause an even greater erosion of consumer trust.

That didn’t stop Comey from arguing that the citizenry has nothing to fear from U.S. government privacy intrusions, because they will be lawful and only done with a court order—unlike in the past. The public is now too distrusting of government to have a debate about privacy versus security, he said.

Perhaps it’s time to suggest that the post-Snowden pendulum has swung too far in one direction—in a direction of fear and mistrust.

But what about the government’s role in carrying out wholesale surveillance? Did Comey mention that? No.

Comey closed in asking: “Are we so mistrustful of government—and of law enforcement—that we are willing to let bad guys walk away…willing to leave victims in search of justice?”

It’s a perfect ad hominem argument to deflect blame away from the goverment: is the public willing to give up more privacy to ensure no baby-killers and terrorists get away?

A better question is whether the FBI is willing to work harder to investigate with the ample surveillance arsenal it has, instead of asking for another dilution of privacy in the name of safety.

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10 responses to “fbiPhone: This Violates Your Privacy. Again.”

  1. Avatar Macon Richardson says:

    Why should we even consider that the new Apple and Google phone systems are really encrypted at all? In marketing-world, “secure encryption” will sell a lot of phones, but neither Apple nor Google are new upstart businesses, not rebel youth. They may have been so during their early years but by now they are old codger corporations who’s eyes are always on the bottom line.
    How better to improve the bottom line than by marketing a “secure encryption” system while at the same time providing the usual back doors for our “security” services. Kill two birds with one stone: sell more phones and remain in the graces of those who can destroy them–the US or UK or EU governments.

    The FBI director’s comments may be (most likely are) mere magician’s tricks: How better to convince the unwary that the “secure encryption” is in fact secure encryption than to have the FBI complain bitterly about it. “FBI director complains? Therefore, must be secure!”

    There’s one born every day.

  2. Avatar walter says:

    Several Points: Those who may wish to understand the matter further might take the trouble to visit http://cryptome.org/ and sundry sites listed there. These include chris-intel-corner.blogspot.gr , a site that through exploring history tends to both illuminate the mind and entertain the wit, as well as by implication foster an understanding of capabilities. It’s also perhaps worth remembering how genuine spies communicate – which is by means of OTP (one-time-pads). These are not “encryption” – they’re actually random and in fact cannot be “broken”. In modern times a commonly understood procedure alone is enough, with the net providing a supply of both a Nth “pads” and also the “numbers stations”. The need for actual physical “pads” and also the tried-and-true radio receiver is now eliminated, though these remain in use (I have from time to time heard (obviously) Cuban Numbers Stations on short-wave). Responsible persons believe that NSA CRAY supercomputers can break an Nth modern encryption, if it’s long enough, in something like 8 hours. If this is true, then what their lordships secretly desire is an economy such that they can read everything cheaply and quickly. This is obvious. Because of OTP it is also futile, with respect to real spies. And, again, just because something seems real, it may still contain crypto and/or OTP data… And “transmitting” meaningless “data” clogs a decrypt system faster than it can be dealt with. Further, a consideration of the uses the UK put to counter-espionage and “black”, grey, and “white” propaganda; which naturally intersects with encryption, is indicated for those who actually wish to grasp an understanding of the field.

  3. Avatar JakeLee says:

    One thing the FBI is well known for is its LIES.

  4. Avatar Shrewtastic says:

    Maybe I’m jaded, but this feels like a “don’t throw me in the briar patch” campaign. “Whatever you do, don’t encrypt everything! Oh no everything’s encrypted. Darn it. We can’t collect metadata and read all of your stuff anymore. We’ll just be over here…and we’re definitely not listening to and reading all of your stuff.” Keeps reading and intercepting everything. Sheeple keep on keeping on.


    I’m just dumbfounded that James Comey is talking about surveilling private citizens’ information is just fine without a warrant. It isn’t.

  5. Avatar omniadeo says:

    “Going dark” = “remain private.”

    And since Comey is not worried about us, those using ordinary encryption protocols and technologies for our communications can infer we are living our lives square in his bright light.

  6. Avatar walter says:

    Even a casual consideration of cryptology and cryptanalysis naturally brings to mind the idea that a stream of genuine random “noise” cannot be proved to be random-in-fact. Thus, according to the obvious logic, attempts at de-crypt of random signals would take an infinite period – forever. As the supply of supercomputers necessary to do said de-crypt attempts is and must always be less than infinite, the relationship between spy and spied-upon is naturally asymmetrical. What appears to be an Nth de-crypt of encrypted data – a “story” or a “picture”, for example, even if “readable”, may contain (and probably usually does) some degree of genuine randomness. The logic is immutable – they, the spies, may believe they have read something secret, but they cannot know this. Of course, evil-minded and fractious persons might simply cut to the chase and send a large amount of “pseudo-traffic” that’s actually meaningless. (Some evil people might even trouble to solder up a leaky diode to a sound card and input tons of random ASCII code). Hey! Wait! They already do! So, what remains? Meta-data. That’s what. Thus, in the sense of real spies, the claims about encryption are obviously mostly trivial. So, meta-data and the personal affairs of decent people are the real (though not, perhaps, the intended “target” of) the lovely little project. Honest “agents” are safe. We’re not. Man, it’s crazy, eh? Welcome to Wonderland! Unimaginable land of sci-fi “reality”.

  7. Avatar closetothetruth says:

    it is remarkable that you can in the same piece celebrate the effectiveness of the approach Apple is advertising, and then critique the FBI for essentially agreeing with your assessment of its effectiveness. if it works, it does make significant, lawful, necessary parts of law enforcement impossible.

    to ridicule him under the banner of a Constitution, many of whose provisions become meaningless in a regime of perfect secrecy, is more than a little ironic.

    • Avatar Incurable Romanticist says:

      The FBI isn’t going to get the bad buys, no matter how many rights I give up. These days they are not the upright, educated, gung ho guys they once were. They don’t care any more for the law, which they don’t really know at all anymore.

      Nothing much prevents criminals from hurting us, even when they’re in prison, and they rarely stay in prison very long. The only thing they don’t do to us is listen to us talking on the phone.

      And absolutely nothing stands between us and corrupt law enforcement, who are now not being trained to protect and serve at all. They are being militarized by the thousands, and they do not consider citizens their employers, but the enemy they must subdue.

      The possibility of my EVER getting any help whatsoever from any law enforcement is so remote that it just doesn’t count with me. I found this out about thirty years ago.

      I am an upper class former college professor. I’ve never done anything that even looks like a crime in my life. I called the cops one time, because my children and I were being attacked, really attacked by a family of crack users. They were slashing the screens, beating down the door, waiting for us to come out the door and shouting threats. Reason? They saw two expensive bicycles at our place and wanted them and a TV.

      The cop showed up. He was a little guy. He talked briefly to the crackhead father, then came to talk to me. Know what he said? “What did you do to get him so worked up?” I answered that I had refused to give him our bicycles and the TV. While the crackhead was shouting obscenities, the cop told me not to get an attitude. “Stay in your house and don’t get him any more worked up.” He walked away with the crackhead, his wife and his older son still standing on my front lawn, looking like extras from “Zombieland.”

      When the cop was gone, around ten at night, Crackdaddy and the kid came back and tried to break in a window. I didn’t bother to call the cops. I took a Garden Weazel and went after him screaming and waving it around my head. I really was planning to sink it into his head. He ran and never came back. Neighbors came out and cheered. Seems they’d all called about him, but nothing ever got done.

      So what exactly would I ever get from letting Coward Cop listen to my phone calls and read my text messages, or monitor my phone? It wouldn’t be good, I’m sure.

      If you knew anything about what really goes on, you’d know that contraband phones are all over the prisons, and no NSA or FBI ever managed to eavesdrop on them.

      Except for a few who just can’t shake their idealism, law enforcement and the criminals are in the same club!

      Give access to my phone to law enforcement so they can grab data about my personal life? Not happening until they make it happen. Then I’ll turn the Garden Weazel on the other bad guys.

    • Avatar John Smith says:

      “citizens their employers, but the enemy they must subdue ”

      ….. Enemies are exactly what citizens are. Read up on the US Constitution and the evolution of who it really applies to today. People make the assumption nothing changed and that there is some bit of paper still maintaining all our rights.

      People wonder why all the constitutional rights are disappearing…. They don’t apply to us. Our CLASS has been changed and we all signed on as accepting it long ago. Its all there in black and white if you go searching through the law.

      Now when the noose is slowly tightened, people start to wake up slowly slowly.