Everyone is stoked that the latest versions of iOS and Android will (finally) encrypt all the information on your smartphone by default. Except, of course, the FBI: Today, its director spent an hour attacking the companies and the very idea of encryption, even suggesting that Congress should pass a law banning the practice of default encryption.
It's of course no secret that James Comey and the FBI hate the prospect of "going dark," the idea that law enforcement simply doesn't have the technical capability to track criminals (and the average person) because of all those goddamn apps, encryption, wifi network switching, and different carriers.
encryption threatens to lead all of us to a very dark place
It's a problem that the FBI has been dealing with for too long (in Comey’s eyes, at least). Today, Comey went ballistic on Apple and Google's recent decision to make everything just a little more private.
"Encryption isn’t just a technical feature; it’s a marketing pitch … it’s the equivalent of a closet that can’t be opened. A safe that can’t be cracked. And my question is, at what cost?" Comey said. "Both companies [Apple and Google] are run by good people, responding to what they perceive is a market demand. But the place they are leading us is one we shouldn’t go to without careful thought and debate."
In a tightly moderated speech and discussion at the Brookings Institution—not one technical expert or privacy expert was asked to participate; however, several questions from the audience came from privacy-minded individuals—Comey railed on the "post-Snowden" world that has arisen since people began caring about their privacy.
Congress might have to force this on companies
Comey's speech and thinking was out-of-touch and off on many levels: He continually referred to potential "bad guys" as the only ones using encryption, and suggested that, with default encryption, people who are wrongly arrested won't be able to unlock data within their phones that could exonerate them.
Comey also said, in all seriousness, that the FBI has "FOMO" on catching predators, just like the kids.
"Bad guy." Really time to end this childish language.
— emptywheel (@emptywheel) October 16, 2014
"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 … kids call this FOMO," he said.
Comey kept referring to the "debate" and "national conversation" that needs to be had regarding widespread encryption. That conversation, in Comey's mind, should stop and start with the idea that there must be a "front door" means for the FBI, NSA, and other law enforcement agencies to blast through encryption. In other words, companies should be "developing [law enforcement] intercept solutions during the design phase," a proposition that, beyond making encryption useless, is potentially not even technically feasible.
"Congress might have to force this on companies," he said. "Maybe they'll take the hint and do it themselves."
Comey repeatedly noted that Apple and Google are simply responding to the "market" and consumer demand, as any good capitalist company would do. But he noted that encryption is not really what people should want, lest the "bad guys" win.
"If the challenges of real-time interception threaten to leave us in the dark, encryption threatens to lead all of us to a very dark place,” 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."
It's absolutely worth noting that this out-of-control pendulum has so corrupted the thinking of the people that Congress has found it prudent to not pass a single law, not do a single thing, to reign in government mass surveillance, despite Comey's goal of real-time interception essentially amounting to the ability to peek into anyone's phone as they use it.
— Trevor Timm (@trevortimm) October 16, 2014
"It might be time to ask: Where are we, as a society? Are we no longer a country governed by the rule of law, where no one is above or beyond that law?," he said, without irony. "Are we so mistrustful of government—and of law enforcement—that we are willing to let bad guys walk away?"
It also might be time to ask: Are the people chosen to run our law enforcement agencies so out of touch with the American people that they believe that only "bad guys" want privacy?