FBI Director Offers Disingenuous and Hypocritical Open Letter to Counter Apple

FBI Director James ComeyFBI Director James Comey
Source: Wikimedia

The public relations battle over whether Apple should be forced to create a back door into iOS for law enforcement was amped up on Sunday. FBI Director James Comey penned his own open letter to counter public comments from Apple and CEO Tim Cook arguing against those efforts. Mr. Comey's letter can best be summarized as follows:

1.) If you hate terrorism, you should support my efforts to force Apple to create a backdoor into iOS.

2.) Privacy advocates need to take a chill pill.

3.) We're just trying to do our job here, and only people who hate America don't want us to do our job.

4.) Despite all evidence to the contrary, this is a one-off thing that won't affect anyone else, ever.

So far, mainstream coverage has been very uncritical, presenting Mr. Comey's arguments with little or no attempt to add context. That's shameful, in my opinion; I personally find his open letter offensive in its tone, arguments, and the effort he goes to obfuscate the issues and paint privacy advocates as irrational.

Accordingly, let's dig into it with a little line-by-line.

The following letter from FBI Director James Comey was posted on Lawfare on February 21, 2016.

The San Bernardino litigation isn't about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message.

Except that it will set a precedent. We all know it, and FBI Director James Comey knows it, too.

It is about the victims and justice. Fourteen people were slaughtered and many more had their lives and bodies ruined. We owe them a thorough and professional investigation under law. That's what this is. The American people should expect nothing less from the FBI.

This is a disgusting play in my opinion. It's nothing more than a maudlin push against our sympathy to convince us civil liberties should take aback seat to the pain and suffering of survivors of a brutal terrorist attack.

The particular legal issue is actually quite narrow.

Except that it's not. Once established, it will be used again and again, and every instance is an opportunity for the backdoor Apple creates to escape.

The relief we seek is limited and its value increasingly obsolete because the technology continues to evolve.

Except that it's not. Still. You can say it over and over again, but that won't make it true.

We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist's passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly.

Yes, we get that you want to do this. Only you can't have that opportunity without criminal organizations and foreign agents eventually getting that same chance. This is well understood by encryption experts. Check with former NSA Director General Michael Hayden. He'll explain it to you.

That's it. We don't want to break anyone's encryption or set a master key loose on the land.

Except that it will. It will make encryption moot because it can be bypassed, and it's inevitable that it be let loose on the land. Again, these are foundational concepts that are well understood by the encryption world.

Next: James Comey Wants Us to Be Thoughtful

Page 2 - James Comey Wants Us to Be Thoughtful


Continuing with a line by line breakdown of James Comey's open letter in support of weakening America's security:

I hope thoughtful people will take the time to understand that.

Thoughtful people have, Mr. Comey. For decades. And they disagree with you. My suggestion is that you take your own advice because it appears that you're the one who hasn't put thought into it.

Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists. Maybe it doesn't. But we can't look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don't follow this lead.

There's that victim card again, and I still find it disgusting.

Reflecting the context of this heart-breaking case, I hope folks will take a deep breath and stop saying the world is ending, but instead use that breath to talk to each other.

Respectfully, Mr. Comey, I can not express my dismay and disgust at this concept in strong enough terms. How dare you suggest that privacy advocates are anything other than in control of their faculties?

Although this case is about the innocents attacked in San Bernardino...

No, it's not. It's about the law, case law, precedents, and the realities of encryption and security. The rights of victims should never be used to trample the rights of everyone else. We all have immeasurable levels of sympathy and empathy for the victims of this and every other terrorist attack, but there is no basis for saying we should sacrifice our civil liberties on the altar of their pain.

...it does highlight that we have awesome new technology that creates a serious tension between two values we all treasure—privacy and safety. That tension should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living. It also should not be resolved by the FBI, which investigates for a living. It should be resolved by the American people deciding how we want to govern ourselves in a world we have never seen before.

Finally we have something we can agree on. Sort of. Thought Mr. Comey is besmirching Apple CEO Tim Cook's motivations for fighting the FBI's efforts, this issue ultimately should be decided by the U.S. Congress. If it's not, the courts will have the final say, which is how the system works.

We shouldn't drift to a place—or be pushed to a place by the loudest voices—because finding the right place, the right balance, will matter to every American for a very long time.

These are big words from one of those loudest voices. The government has the very loudest voice in most discussions, and it's the FBI who has been pushing on this issue the hardest. I find this passage to be hypocritical, at best.

So I hope folks will remember what terrorists did to innocent Americans at a San Bernardino office gathering and why the FBI simply must do all we can under the law to investigate that.

Again, Mr. Comey, this is a disgusting argument. It's shameful.

And in that sober spirit, I also hope all Americans will participate in the long conversation we must have about how to both embrace the technology we love and get the safety we need.

I do too. And I hope that Mr. Comey listens to that conversation. The more I've learned on the topic of encryption and security, the more I've come to understand why unbreakable, end-to-end encryption is vital to protecting our data from the prying eyes of the many people who want to steal it.