It's hard to believe our government could get any more wrong on the subject of encryption than FBI Director James Comey and the U.S. Department of Justice have recently been, but it turns out things can always get worse.
Gizmodo reported that CIA Director John Brenner and NSA Deputy Director Rick Ledgett blamed the media for terrorists turning to encryption in a hearing by the House Intelligence Committee. This is not only a dangerous idea for a free society, it shows that some of our top intelligence folks are drawing precisely the wrong lessons from reality.
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Firstly, check out Gizmodo's coverage for the lowdown on how Director Comey said little of substance during the hearing, other than to insist that he isn't an expert.
Now let's dig into what our top intelligence people had to say on the subject of "going dark," the idea that the bad guys can communicate without our good guys knowing about it.
Director Brenner said, "The ability of these terrorists to communicate with one another that makes it very difficult to uncover has been increasing. It’s very frustrating but very concerning. They follow the press, they follow these discussions."
The implication of that statement is that if the press wasn't talking about encryption, terrorists wouldn't know about it. Director Ledgett doubled down on the notion, saying:
We track when our foreign intelligence targets talk about the security of their communication. And we see a growing number of them, because of what’s in the press about the value of encryption, moving towards that.
I don't doubt the veracity of either of these claims, but I take tremendous issue with the implications behind them.
A Free Society
The press's job is to report the news, to opine about the news, and to explore the issues that confront a free society. Encryption is important to all of us, and not just because of the growing threat of political terrorism, but because of the growing instances of credit card theft, identity theft, and every other kind of data thievery occurring around the world.
Encryption is our best defense against these forms of criminal activities, and that's not even counting the actions of foreign governments against our own government, our corporations, and we, the people.
The press would be in complete abrogation of its responsibilities if it kept mum on the subject of encryption. Even if it did so, do the NSA and CIA think that somehow, magically, terrorists wouldn't learn about it?
It's delusional, dangerous, and bizarrely simple.
General Michael Hayden, a former director of both the CIA and the NSA, said last week that FBI Director James Comey thinks he is the gravitational center of the solar system (my paraphrase), and that we the people need to revolve around him. He further stated that Mr. Comey is wrong, that we are the center, and that the FBI needs to do what is good for us.
My interpretation is that Director Comey and the FBI have lost sight of who is important. While law enforcement plays a vital role in protecting the country, the point of law enforcement is to work for the benefit and pleasure of the citizens and protect their rights, not to trample those rights by having the citizens bend for the pleasure and ease of law enforcement.
It's possible that the current directors of the FBI and NSA have fallen victim to the same myopia, that they think we are here to service the needs of the intelligence services. If so, they are wrong.
Next: Lessons from Reality