FBI Still Manipulating Public in Encryption Fight

| Analysis

The San Bernardino iPhone unlocking court battle is over, and FBI Director James Comey said he's glad for it. He also said the very public battle had an "unintended benefit," and lamented the fact it became an emotional issue—right before he added fuel to that fire by equating the encryption fight to the emotions he sees in the gun control debate.

Director Comey says public debate was a surprise benefit of San Bernardino iPhone caseDirector Comey says public debate was a surprise benefit of San Bernardino iPhone case

Director Comey shared his comments with law students at Catholic University earlier this week. The case involved a court order the FBI obtained to force Apple to create a hackable version of iOS so agents could see the encrypted contents of San Bernardino mass shooter Syed Farook's iPhone. The FBI chose to make the case public and tried to paint Apple as a cold and heartless corporation more worried about its own profits than combating terrorism.

Apple fought the order in court, claiming the government didn't have the authority to force a company to create tools to defeat the encryption on its own products. Apple said complying with the order would set a dangerous precedent where other companies would be forced to do the same, ultimately destroying privacy and security for individuals as well as the United States.

The FBI dropped the fight after buying a still undisclosed hack to bypass the iPhone's lockscreen passcode. Director Comey doesn't want to share the technique with Apple because the company would patch the security flaw.

Despite the fact that the FBI chose to make this a public fight—even including a talk show appearance by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch defending the FBI's position—Mr. Comey said there was an "unintended benefit" in that it sparked a public conversation about balancing security and privacy. It's hard to imagine no one at the FBI expected to see any form of debate on the topic after gift wrapping and dropping it into the public's lap.

Mr. Comey went on to say emotions on the topic are running high and that talking about encryption in absolutes, or posting comments on Twitter, isn't helping the debate. He went on to ramp up those emotions more, adding,

Some of the emotion that I've received around this issue reminds me sometimes—the absolutist and slippery slope arguments—remind me of some of the rhetoric we hear in the gun debate. It's the same kind of rhetoric and passion in this conversation.

There is some irony in Director Comey equating protecting encryption to the gun control debate considering the San Bernardino shooters used guns to kill 14 people and injure 22 more before dying in a shootout with police.

The problem with Director Comey's concern over discussing encryption in absolutes is that there isn't any other way to approach the topic: either we have encryption, and the privacy and security it brings, or we don't. When weaknesses and backdoors are intentionally added to devices and services that offer data encryption, they're available to everyone regardless of whether or not they're a legit government agency, hacker, or criminal.

Intentionally punching holes through the security encryption offers creates weaknesses anyone can exploit, which clearly doesn't fit with the "no absolutes" narrative Director Comey is pushing. His "unintended benefit" comment is a hard pill to swallow, too, because the FBI had to know making its fight with Apple public would lead to the heated debate we're seeing now. In other words, the public debate was very much intended when it began, and it still is today.

When the fight over forcing Apple to hack into Mr. Farook's iPhone went public, the FBI said, "Just this phone, just this once." Considering the ongoing fights in other courts to do the same, and the Department of Justice's commitment to push for backdoors into our private data, that statement was totally disingenuous just as the "unintended benefit" statement is now.

[Thanks to ABC News for the heads up]

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So the police want the ability to see if a crime of going on.
They want to drill a hole onto your house so they can check to see if someone is being killed or robbed. They will keep the location of the hole secret, so there’s no risk of mosquitos or mice or snakes getting in.

Would work about as well.


Precisely. How many potential catastrophes have been averted through these methods? I’m willing go wager they are few to none. How many have been protected by encryption? That number is likely far, far higher.


I’m curious. If the U. S. Gov’t bought the supposed hack outright, why couldn’t Apple buy the same? (I’m not debating the relative cost/benefit analysis here, just the possibility of the purchase.)

Old UNIX Guy

Another thing (Mis)Director Comey said was that we all needed to keep our emotions in check.

Well I’m sorry, but when the director of the highest law enforcement agency in the land and the Attorney General of the United States are knowingly, deliberately, and pathologically lying to me and the rest of the American people, it TICKS ME OFF!

And what ticks me off even more is that they still have their jobs.

But hey, once the delusional egomaniac with the laughable combover is POTUS he’ll fire them because I’ll tell him to…


When people take public office, isn’t the public trusting that official will do his job as described in the law? Doesn’t that official swear—in the oath of office—to do the job and uphold the laws of the United States to the best of his/her ability? Basically promising that s/he can be trusted?

I don’t trust James Comey to either uphold the law or do the job to the best of his ability (and I suspect neither do a lot of others in the intelligence community). I expect more than ignorance, whining, disingenuousness, or being misleading from public officials. When they fail, and lose the public’s trust, shouldn’t they be required to give up their position?  Is Comey still in office because of politics? Or is it a lack of clarity by him or his boss as to what his proper role is?


Hi everyone. I saw a great comparison elsewhere about the Senate Draft bill that would order tech companies to put back doors in:

“Does that law apply to companies producing paper shredders? Will they have to invent a reasonable and timely process to un-shred the pieces? What about match companies? Recreate the original text from the gaseous carbon dioxide and water fumes?”


Ron: great point !! Would this really outlaw shredders ???

We already knew that this bill was a stretch but this could be a cool “hull breach”.


I know!! When I read it, it was one of those ‘aha’ moments!! But it really fits!!


Not that it would outlaw anything, but tech companies could really point to shredders and fire and say, “Why do we have to sacrifice our users’ privacy when you can’t force companies that sell ways to ensure privacy by physically destroying evidence to stop selling their products or make them so they can’t destroy potentially valuable FBI evidence?”


Maybe we can classify encryption as “pre-shredding”.

OK, Sen. Feinstein - let’s see you craft a law that bans “pre-shredding”.


It’s not very surprising. Countless governments throughout history have waved the specter of war or invasion to frighten the populace into doing the government’s bidding. The US government is no exception. The FBI hoped that it had the perfect case with San Bernardino. It was hoping that public opinion would turn against Apple and that Apple would be frightened into capitulating for fear of alienating its customers. That didn’t happen. Public opinion was not resoundingly in favor of the FBI.

With that said though, the FBI director is right in a way that the rhetoric we’re hearing about encryption is reminiscent of what we hear about gun control. The funny thing about that though is that some of the people calling for more relaxed gun control laws such as allowing concealed carry on college campuses are the same people calling for limits on encryption. Donald Trump is one example. I don’t get that. Guns are capable of causing far more damage than encrypted communication that’s hard to crack.

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