The FBI chief’s call for ‘clarity and transparency’ on surveillance wouldn’t be so laughable if the government wasn’t so aggressively secretive
FBI director James Comey wants a US government-mandated backdoor into your iPhone and your Google account. But Comey doesn’t want tocall his proposed privacy invasion a backdoor. He doesn’t understand how it would work. And he expects everyone who has been horrified by the NSA’s mass surveillance to just sit back, weaken their personal security and trust that the government will never abuse it.
Comey is currently on a media blitz, decrying Apple and Google’s long overdue decision that enables encryption by default on updated iPhone and Android devices. Apple and Google have made it so that everyone’s phone is encrypted by the passcode each user sets up, so that when someone steals your phone (or the cops seize it), no one will be able to open the contents besides you. Not even Apple or Google will have the key – or, in other words, a backdoor to access information you’ve encrypted.
We know there’s no real need to worry about Apple and Android’s move: law enforcement has a half-dozen other ways to get at all the data out of your phone if it needs to solve actual crimes. This is just a basic security protection that, if implemented by Facebook, Gmail, text messaging apps and others, could go a long way to solving America’s cybersecurity problem. And it would leave everyone living in countries with authoritarian governments like those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, China or Russia from having to worry about being spied on.
But Jim Comey, like the NSA, sees encryption for the masses as the enemy – not the type of tool that keeps your medical and bank records safe. He was on 60 Minutes this week calling Apple and Google’s decision a threat to national security, and, on Thursday, he gave his first major speech as FBI director, which focused entirely on the dangers of people controlling their own security.
Right now, the current US law governing this subject specifically says that what Apple and Google are doing is perfectly legal. If their encryption systems are designed so that only the user has the key, the law says, then the companies have no obligation to hand over data to the police. But Comey wants Congress to pass a new law mandating that all tech companies build backdoors – or “lawful intercept” capabilities, as the government likes to call it – into all their systems, so there will always be a technical hole in the system that the FBI can exploit to read your emails if they hand the company a court order.
But there’s a reason that every person you will see advocating for these backdoors is not a technical expert. That’s because pretty much all of them will tell you that Comey’s proposal is a terrible idea. As the ACLU’s principal technologist, Chris Soghoian, reminded Comey in the first question after his speech on Thursday: if you create the key for one person, someone else will eventually steal it.
The fact is, even if we trust the FBI 100% (and who would at this point?), there is no doubt that this type of “lawful intercept system” will be found and exploited by foreign governments and criminal hackers. This isn’t a hypothetical; as Bruce Schneier recently wrote, we know from experience that “backdoor access built for the good guys is routinely used by the bad guys”. He described at least three major incidents where government backdoors have been exploited by hackers in the past few years:
- In 2005, some unknown group surreptitiously used the lawful-intercept capabilities built into the Greek cell phone system.
- The same thing happened in Italy in 2006.
- In 2010, Chinese hackers subverted an intercept system Google had put into Gmail to comply with U.S. government surveillance requests. Backdoors in our cell phone system are currently being exploited by the FBI and unknown others.
This is perhaps the most bizarre part of the FBI director’s quest for technical access to all our internet and mobile communications. He has been on the warpath lately talking up the dangers of cyberattacks, yet this push for encryption backdoors is handing cybercriminals a giant gift. Comey is arguing that we should make the internet less secure for everyone, at the exact time he’s calling the internet “the most dangerous parking lot imaginable”. It defies common sense
To get around this cybersecurity hypocrisy, the FBI director is trying to pretend what Comey is advocating for is not a “backdoor” because he’s asking for the capability in public. Here’s what he said in his speechThursday:
There is a misconception that building a lawful intercept solution into a system requires a so-called “backdoor”, one that foreign adversaries and hackers may try to exploit.
But that isn’t true. We aren’t seeking a backdoor approach. We want to use the front door, with clarity and transparency, and with clear guidance provided by law. We are completely comfortable with court orders and legal process – front doors that provide the evidence and information we need to investigate crime and prevent terrorist attacks.
This statement is a jumble of buzzwords that makes no sense. Jim Comey is making the same absurd “magical golden key” argument that the know-nothings on the Washington Post editorial board were mocked and derided for two weeks ago. What Comey is asking for is the textbook definition a backdoor – a way for law enforcement to access communications that are supposedly encrypted. Only he wants to use a different euphemism so to put people at ease.
And Comey’s call for “clarity and transparency” surrounding the surveillance process wouldn’t be so laughable if the FBI wasn’t aggressively trying to hide it’s all surveillance capabilities from the public, making law enforcement sign non-disclosure agreements as they hand out invasive new spying technology, and refusing to even tell count how many times they’ve searched through the NSA’s massive databases for Americans without a warrant.
Comey also claimed on Thursday that the “Post-Snowden pendulum” needs to swing back in favor of the government, neglecting to mention Congress has passed literally zero laws reigning in government surveillance. In fact, the main reason the major tech companies are pushing forward with encryption is because the government refuses to follow the will of the people and curtail the NSA’s powers at all. If Comey wanted a careful debate about the right balance of privacy and security before decisions like Apple’s are made, ike he also said on Thursday night, maybe he should’ve advocated for that when the NSA was massively expanding their powers for years in complete secrecy.
So while we break out the world’s smallest violin as Jim Comey complains about the “Post-Snowden pendulum”, remember: the US government, through its own secret actions, brought this on themselves.