Comey Acknowledges Screwing Up in Encryption Fight, But He Still Doesn't Grasp the Issue

The former FBI director recognizes his criticism of Apple was "thoughtless," but he doesn't see the underlying problem with seeking cybersecurity back doors.


James Comey's book
Justin Ng/Retna/Avalon.red/Newscom

Did fired FBI chief James Comey's new book acknowledge that he was an idiot about encryption?

Comey's book, preachily and self-satisfyingly titled A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, is being released today. Most of the attention it's been getting has focused on the investigation into Hillary Clinton's private server use and Comey's interactions with President Donald Trump.

But the book also delves into other policy issues that came up during his stint with the FBI, and that includes the bureau's battles with encryption. Comey was among the officials who got upset when Apple and other tech companies insisted on strong, hard-to-break encryption that could make it harder for the feds to gain access to people's devices. (This came to a head recently when the device in question was an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino terrorists.)

Comey's frustrations over encryption came up in a couple sentences from the book that circulated before the text was published. He had been upset, he wrote, that tech companies didn't see the darkness and evil of the world that the FBI sees:

I found it appalling that the tech types couldn't see this. I would frequently joke with the FBI "Going Dark" team assigned to seek solutions, "Of course the Silicon Valley types don't see the darkness—they live where it's sunny all the time and everybody is rich and smart."

Yes—they're smart enough to know that encryption actually helps protect citizens against that dark and evil side of the world, be it identity thieves or dangerous foreign governments.

Comey's dismissive attitude toward encryption probably reached its ugliest point in 2016, after the fight over the San Bernardino shooter's phone had faded, when he imperiously declared we needed to have an "adult conversation" about the need for tech companies to help the FBI access encrypted devices. Such a snotty attitude certainly made it clear he didn't take the argument seriously that our private data would be more vulnerable to bad actors if back doors let the government bypass encryption.

But it turns out, to judge from an NPR interview with Comey released today, that the man sees the way he handled the encryption fight as one of his mistakes. Well, sort of. In the tiresome manner of many technocrats, he doesn't think his position is wrong; he just thinks he spoke impulsively about his frustrations with Apple:

I think I entered the debate about encryption in a thoughtless way. I acted impulsively and commented at a brown bag lunch about how bugged I was by an Apple advertisement, and that was kind of stupid. I should have entered in a more thoughtful way.

Apple had responded to this encryption fight by pointing out how it protects its consumers, prompting a truly bizarre response from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who accused the company of using all this as a marketing tool. The argument fell completely flat, as it should have. Turns out consumers like tools that let them protect their privacy.

Since that fight, we've discovered that people within Comey's FBI deliberately dragged their feet in trying to find third-party solutions to cracking encryption because they wanted to force this confrontation between tech companies and the government.

Motherboard is now reporting that law enforcement agencies are increasingly turning to tools that help them break through encryption for iPhones. There's essentially going to be a permanent arms race between encryption innovations and those who have an interest (for good reasons or sinister) for breaking through them.

Below, watch Reason TV on "How Government Lost the Crypto Wars (At Least for Now)":

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  1. Does he cover why it’s professional to write a tell all book featuring people who are part of an ongoing investigation?

    1. As an investigator, he knows they were grossly negligent extremely careless but won’t be charged. QED.

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    2. Or why he remained employed by a President he felt was unworthy to be President?

      I’d have a bit more pride, personally, than to stay there.

      But I also didn’t have a good weep with Obama over my attempts to do the “right thing” by…well, shifting the narrative of my Clinton investigation to match, precisely, her campaign’s narrative.

      1. FBI directors used to have a tradition of staying on for a fixed term so as to give the appearance of independence. Bet Trump wishes he could take that one back.

        1. Bet he doesn’t. Bet Trump doesn’t regret much at all. It’s about his only charming feature.

          1. I think he regrets appointing Jeff Sessions. How that manifests itself in his brain as an emotion is I’m sure fascinating to someone.

            1. He likely does. He probably wanted a toadie ball-licker like Holder or Lynch.

              …feel free to explain how they were not toadies or ball lickers.

              1. Obama never committed vast crimes they needed to worry about. But credit to that ridiculous peckerwood where it’s due, he always wanted to be AG and by god he’s going to justice the fuck out of the country until he’s fired.

                1. Yep, that was the Obama era in a nutshell: No scandals whatsoever.


                  1. Go ahead, name one.

                    1. Sure thing: Prohibiting firearm sellers to follow the law in straw purchases.

                      Bonus points: Selling guns out of a foreign embassy, then acting surprised when it’s attacked.

                      Tripe-Word Score: Coming down on a certain popular whistleblower so hard they were forced to leave the country.

                      Banana Republic Bonus Round: Spying on reporters and prosecuting them.

                    2. I’ll give you 1/2 scandal in all of that. Being surprised when an embassy is attacked isn’t a scandal. And reasonable people disagree about just who gets to count as a whistleblower. Whistleblowers are also welcome to submit themselves to law enforcement and still be whistleblowers, unless they’re getting some kind of help from… oh, we’re getting into more Trump-specific scandals already.

                    3. Those were just the overview scandals that were top of mind big ones. It’s a complete and utter joke to claim the Obama era was ‘scandal free’, even in comparison to the Trump administration thus far.

                      People might disagree if Snowden was a patriot or a traitor, but since the things he revealed were ostensibly illegal for the government to do it’s curious that he was the one that had to leave the country.

                    4. You can only view Obama as “scandal-free” if you rule that the government ignoring law-breaking as well as the media meaning it never happened. The media had a LONG track record of protecting Obama.

                    5. Extra point: pallet loads of cash shipped to Middle East.

                    6. Accepting anonymous campaign contributions online.

                2. Obama never committed vast crimes they needed to worry about.

                  Violated, repeatedly, laws in regards to handling classified info by permitting, with full knowledge, of Hillary’s illegal email system.

                  Forced gun dealers to sell guns to straw buyers, with those guns ending up with Mexican cartels, to legitimize an attack on American rights.

                  Spied on a political opponent with a falsified FISA warrant.

                  Violated federal immigration laws.

                  Want more?

                  Hell, he was more supportive of Putin than Trump ever dreamed of being.

        2. FBI directors used to have a tradition of staying on for a fixed term so as to give the appearance of independence. Bet Trump wishes he could take that one back.

          Changing the wording of a probe to match the campaign narrative of a candidate is an amazingly poor method of showing independence.

          Trump would’ve been wise to dump him before the inauguration.

          1. Can any action be considered “wise” if it ends up with a special prosecutor investigating your hooker piss play?

            1. You must have been in the room to verify that tidbit of information since certain other parts of the dossier are provably false.

              1. Like Michael Cohen being in Ukraine?

                1. Take your pick of already proven errors in the dossier, it’s public knowledge and easily searchable.

                  Just pointing out that you clearly must have been in the room for that tidbit since it’s explicitly unverified.

                  I do appreciate you quoting Kremlin operative provided information though. It’s truly a shame it was given to the DNC and the Hillary campaign, but fortunately only Republicans can be investigated for ‘collusion’, whatever that is.

                  1. Because I come to a libertarian website to read the excruciating parsing of why our president is one piss-play evening less corrupt than he obviously is.

                    1. *shrug*

                      I’m not the one who believes that Trump worked with Putin to somehow rig an American election, but I do find it interesting that virtually all the people who believe this simply write off the already proven ‘collusion’ of the DNC and the Clinton campaign.

                    2. Piss play is kink, not corruption.

        3. You know what else FBI directors used to do? Use the FBI’s resources to amass blackmail material on politicians and citizens both.

          Here’s the guy that originally made the FBI ‘great’, after all.

          To think the apple fell far from that tree is to be pretty incredulous, I think.

    3. I’m impressed with how quickly he’s managed to crank out this book. I’m sure that it’s well researched and includes multiple references and citations to help maximize accuracy.

    4. Head of the FBI doesn’t need to follow no stinkin’ laws nor constitution.

  2. Oh man. I didn’t realize this shit was called A Higher Loyalty.

    Now I’m throwing up.

    1. Better than Dan Rather’s Truthiness. But not by much.

    2. Obama admitted inhaling.

  3. Comey Acknowledges Screwing Up in Encryption Fight, But He Still Doesn’t Grasp the Issue

    At least he is reliably consistent.

  4. The former FBI director recognizes his criticism of Apple was “thoughtless,” but he doesn’t see the underlying problem with seeking cybersecurity back doors.

    Thinking is over rated, apparently.

  5. I should have entered in a more thoughtful way.

    Compare that to Hillary’s excuse for the failure to get Hillarycare enacted – “We did a poor job of educating the public.” They still know they’re right, they just forgot that when you’re dealing with deplorables and bitter clingers you have to really dumb it down so those pig-ignorant inbred troglodytes can understand what it is you’re trying to explain to them.

    1. And by “dumb it down” you mean give verbal commitment to the outcomes and courses of action they want to hear, even if it’s counter to your intended outcomes and courses of action. If you like their lies, you can keep their lies.

    2. They’ve let that mask slip enough times that it’s not really in serious doubt by anyone that this is their thinking on the subject.

  6. “There’s .. going to be a permanent arms race between encryption innovations and those who have an interest … [in] breaking through them.”

    Going to be?

  7. alt-text: +1 Shackl?snark.

    1. The scarier question is, how much of that time occurred while his pants were down?

      1. Probably all the time.

  8. Yes, the time-honored tradition of Top Men coming to see the error of their ways once they’re no longer in a position to do anything about it.

  9. “There’s essentially going to be a permanent arms race between encryption innovations and those who have an interest (for good reasons or sinister) for breaking through them.”

    That’s basically been the case since someone first came up with the idea of a simple substitution cipher. Seriously, how is that in any way new?

  10. Who gives a flying fuck what this retard thinks, exactly? Especially enough to buy his book?

  11. So, what I’m hearing is that Comey not only ruined Hillary Clinton’s election, but he’s kind of a spy douche, too. That’s right?

  12. “Of course the Silicon Valley types don’t see the darkness?they live where it’s sunny all the time and everybody is rich and smart.”

    Well, I’m sorry, Comey, but if you didn’t devote your life to sucking political cock in DC, maybe you could live somewhere sunny, too.

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  14. Anda hanya dapat melihat Obama sebagai “bebas skandal” jika Anda memutuskan bahwa pemerintah mengabaikan pelanggaran hukum serta arti media yang tidak pernah terjadi. Media memiliki rekam jejak yang panjang untuk melindungi Obama.

  15. The article, and you commenters, all miss the point, so you cannot address or deal with the issue….

    To settle the entire matter, the correct solution : process is to pass a statute requiring that every commercial operations : associations, domestic or foreign, that allow any government to extort proprietary information : processes : security whatever secrets ‘as a condition of doing business : operating : existing’, that disclosing outfit, will turn all such information over to the American government which will then immediately release every element of such information for – immediate – uncompensated, private and public : Individual : commercial uses by American Citizens – forever.

    Every proprietary security issue : problem solved ! immediately, forever… as well, fixes the Chinese theft of intellectual – proprietary – operating information by commercial operational extortion.

    Get the Law passed and go enjoy the day.

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