Civil Liberties

FBI Director James Comey is Upset About Smartphone Encryption? Tough.


James Comey

"What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to hold themselves beyond the law," FBI Director James Comey whined to reporters gathered at FBI headquarters. His comments came in response to announcements from Apple and Google that the latest generation of mobile device operating systems will not just ease the use of encryption on the devices, but make it automatic. What has been an opt-in option until now will become default security for users that, at least theoretically, puts private information beyond the reach of snoops, device manufacturers—and law enforcement. (Note this guide to why you should be careful in how you implement encryption to minimize holes in your defenses.)

FBI bureaucrats may be upset, but the rest of us have good reason to cheer the tech companies' moves. That's because Comey and his cronies here in the U.S. and around the world have made it thoroughly clear over the years that governments are among the more dangerous threats to people's privacy.

Comey and other law enforcement officials invoke the specter of enabled criminals in this brave new world of stronger privacy protections that scoff at warrants. "Apple will become the phone of choice for the pedophile," John J. Escalante, chief of detectives for Chicago's police department, told the Washington Post.

Scott Beale/Foter

Maybe. But Apple and Android phones will likely become must-haves for journalists, too, after revelations about spying by the Department of Justice on the Associated Press, Fox's James Rosen, and other journalists. The current president is "the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation," the New York Times' James Risen noted earlier this year. But there's no reason to think the next administration or the one after that will be any more respectful of privacy or press freedom.

It's also rich for Comey to complain about companies responding to greater public demand—in the United States and abroad—after a tidal wave of revelations about NSA surveillance on private communications. He may want to hold himself and his agency apart from the abuses of the national securty snoops, but the FBI continues to target the press with national security letters.

And most of us don't differentiate among government alphabet soup agencies, anyway. We know they share information back and forth, across jurisdictions and national borders. They're all a threat to our privacy and liberty. Comey complains that eased encryption will "allow people to hold themselves beyond the law," which is the whole damned idea. He and his counterparts give the public repeated reason to view the law and its enforcers as enemies.

And by the way, Apple and Google aren't preventing courts from issuing warrants, they're just returning the onus of compliance to the data owner where it belongs.

Does encryption offer potential benefits to actual criminals? Sure. But it also helps protect the general public against officials and agencies we have no reason to trust.