Surveillance

Trump and Comey Are United Against Encrypted Communications

Don’t worry—America’s ruling factions still disagree over who should be in charge of the snooping.

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For all the public sparring between the two inflated egos known as Donald Trump and James Comey, the president and the former FBI director have some important commonalities. For starters, they both hate it when the common people keep secrets from the ruling class of which they represent competing factions.

The point of agreement between the two political antagonists became clear on January 14, when President Trump complained that Apple executives "refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements." Some of us poked at our ears, wondering if we were hearing echoes. After all, not so long ago, as head of the FBI, Comey tried to force Apple to unlock encrypted cell phones and raged that Apple, Google, and other companies "market something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law."

Trump agreed with Comey back then, too, by the way; in 2016, he called for a boycott of Apple until such time as the company helped the FBI break iPhone security.

Apparently, not as much divides these two men as they like to let on.

In public, Trump calls Comey a "disgrace" and Comey fires back at a man he calls a "strange and slightly sad old guy." But—aside from the fact that they're both correct about each other's flaws—that's intramural combat between power addicts over who should wield the power. That the public should be poked, prodded, and intruded upon is a given for Comey and Trump. And it's a sentiment that binds so many of our would-be lords and masters in public office.

The shared nature of official nosiness becomes clear when you remember last November's bipartisan vote to extend the Patriot Act, a measure that the Electronic Frontier Foundation says "broadly expands law enforcement's surveillance and investigative powers and represents one of the most significant threats to civil liberties, privacy, and democratic traditions in US history." Even as Democrats debated impeaching Donald Trump—a move they later approved—they overwhelmingly joined with the Trump administration to support the surveillance bill's extension.

Trans-partisan hand-holding on surveillance state measures is certainly nothing new among the political class. The Patriot Act originally passed during the presidency of Republican President George W. Bush, but with plenty of cross-aisle support.

"I drafted a terrorism bill after the Oklahoma City bombing," senator and current leading Democratic presidential wannabe Joe Biden boasted to The New Republic after the Patriot Act's passage. "And the bill John Ashcroft sent up was my bill."

Biden's anti-privacy efforts extend back so far that he inspired Phil Zimmermann to complete the development of PGP encryption software.

Later, as vice president, Biden threatened countries that considered offering asylum to surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, frets that the data encrypted communications will "allow companies to hide from 'government spying'—such as text messages and chatroom transcripts—have proven to be 'key evidence' in previous regulatory and compliance cases."

It seems Trump and Comey are in good company on the issue. Well, good-ish—for a certain D.C.-centric value of the word.

"Lawmakers are giving big tech firms an ultimatum: Give police access to encrypted communications or we'll force you," The Washington Post reported last month.

"It ain't complicated for me," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told representatives from Facebook and Apple at a Capitol Hill hearing in December. "You're going to find a way to do this or we're going to do it for you."

"You all have got to get your act together or we will gladly get your act together for you," said Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who also sits on the judiciary committee.

Ranking Democratic member Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), meanwhile, said she is "determined to see that there is a way that phones can be unlocked when major crimes are committed," whether tech companies like it or not.

And so on. Trump and Comey's frenemy act opposing communications privacy for people who don't draw government paychecks is the rule, not the exception.

Sure, there are some surveillance skeptics and privacy advocates among the political class. But they're rare, and except for a very few civil liberties-oriented and government-skeptic types who are usually on the outs with the real powerbrokers, they're awfully unreliable on the issue.

The problem is that the Trumps, Comeys, Grahams, Bidens, Feinsteins, Blackburns, and Warrens of the world largely agree that the government that defines their lives and gives them importance should be vastly powerful. The rationales they come up with depend on the specific priorities of the politician in question, the cultural moment, and the audience, but they're forever arguing in favor of an intrusive state from which we can keep no secrets.

"It had become clear, to me at least, that the repeated evocations of terror by the political class were not a response to any specific threat or concern but a cynical attempt to turn terror into a permanent danger that required permanent vigilance enforced by unquestionable authority," whistleblower Edward Snowden wrote of his growing awareness of what lay behind the surveillance state in Permanent Record, his 2019 memoir.

Substitute "violent criminal elements" or "criminal action by Wall Street" or "child abusers" or any other justification politicians might come up with if you wish, but it all leads in the same direction. Ultimately, the members of the political class may fight tooth and nail, but it's not over whether Leviathan should paw through our communications. They just disagree over who should be in charge of the pawing.

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  1. Hey remember when you spent 3 entire fucking years worshiping the FBI and supporting warrantless spying and star chamber secret courts because it was all in service of taking down the Bad Orange Man? Because everybody else does, you disingenuous lying piece of fucking shit.

    1. Tuccille? More than half of the rest of the Reason staff, I wouldn’t bat an eye at what you’re saying, but I think you’ve confused J.D. for the rest of them.

      1. Indeed. Silence may mean nothing.

        1. Maybe JD can explain how he came to write this article for Reason, and if he was ever solicited regarding articles about the FBI abuses.

    2. No one at Reason worshipped the FBI or warrantless spying, even when they were criticizing Trump. Your comment makes no sense.

  2. To be fair, they only support this sort of spying on bad people, not good people. You can tell who the good people are because they support this sort of spying.

    1. Reminds me of True Lies.
      Helen Tasker: Have you ever killed anyone?
      Harry: Yeah, but they were all bad.

    2. To be fair, they only support this sort of spying on bad people, not good people. You can tell who the good people are because they support this sort of spying.

      To be fair, Trump does rather specifically limit his criticism to “killers, drug dealers, and other violent criminals” and doesn’t appear to call for any sort of back door to all phones controlled by the FBI the way Comey did/does.

      Again, not saying that I like my choices and I probably wouldn’t vote on a ballot that only had them as options, but if I must pick; it certainly seems like a James “There are parts of the Constitution I’ve devoted myself to shredding.” Comey vs. Donald “Sometimes the Constitution makes it hard to catch and convict bad people.” Trump

  3. “They just disagree over who should be in charge of the pawing.”

    The Grand Compromise will be that they will ***ALL*** be in charge of the pawing!!! All politicians in favor of pawing privileges for ALL politicians of ALL stripes, raise your paws!!!

    1. If Tulsi Gabbard wants to paw me, I won’t complain.

      1. seconds! i mean seconded. no wait seconds!

        1. But I don’t want you pawing me!

  4. I’m starting to think Republicans and Democrats aren’t all that different.

    1. I’m starting to think Republicans and Democrats aren’t all that different.

      Yeah, when you portray Trump as a bumbling idiot, a technological and Constitutional/legal scholar on par with a career politician like James Comey, and everything in between, I could see how your ability to distinguish… pretty much anything would be compromised.

      You don’t even have to squint very hard to convince yourself that Johnny English/Rowan Atkinson and James Comey are pretty much the same person. All that’s missing is Atkinson’s feelings about Apple/encryption.

    2. Republicans are just Democrats from 10-20 years ago. For the most part. I think there are a few more persistent differences. But they have the same love of power and control, albeit to differing degrees.

      That’s how the Progressive/Conservative dynamic works. And that’s why politics is not the answer. I wish I knew what was the answer.

  5. I love the spin on this article. This is nothing new. The Federal Government has been against encryption since the beginning of the telegraph. Businesses used to have to give the Government a copy of their code books before they were allowed to send a coded telegram. Do a little research, if you know how.

    1. Businesses used to have to give the Government a copy of their code books before they were allowed to send a coded telegram.

      Source?

      1. The Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh had a display of them several years ago.

        1. Code books, or regulations requiring their disclosure to the government?

  6. Discuss this article on Quora:

    https://www.quora.com/q/sgrmlrcbxkjitfee/Trump-and-Comey-Are-United-Against-Encrypted-Communications

    Quora is a vibrant community where everyone must use their real names and a “be nice, be respectful” policy is strictly enforced.

    1. so did a bot steal jeff’s side-name here or was mike laursen always a bot?

      1. I hope you are being ironic.

        If it’s a bot, it’s a very elaborate one with a backstory. And I’m not sure what it’s selling. Looks like it might be an honest attempt to start a less hostile discussion about Reason articles. Good luck with that.

        1. Mike used to say things other than “come to Quora”

  7. Trump and Comey Are United Against Encrypted Communications Mathematics

    Fixed

  8. Freedom of communication also covers freedom of encrypted communication too – end of story

  9. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

    At least that’s what she claims.

  10. Apparently, not as much divides these two men as they like to let on.

    Once again J.D. is slowly being drawn into Reason’s ‘both sides’ fold.

    Trump who, in any other circumstance or situation would be a bumbling fool completely incapable of understanding public key encryption and it’s Constitutional implications is suddenly a mental power on par with a man who has DA, Deputy AG, and Director on his resume.

    Trump’s clearly not just lamenting that bad people get away with keeping secrets while doing bad things, he’s clearly committing to the full-fascist ideology to commit Apple to a Sisyphean effort that Comey is.

    I get that the outcome from a libertarian perspective is effectively the same. It’d be nice if that message came across without the unprincipled and incredible Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde false-equivocation narrative.

  11. This article fails to meet Reason’s criteria for publication. You neglected to mention that the only reason Trump is against encrypted iPhones is so he can dig up dirt on his political rival, Joe Biden.

  12. A lot of this “debate” from the public side seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what the “problem” is for Barr, and what the “solution” would be. People seem to think that Apple simply refuses to help; in truth, they cannot help, as in they lack the ability.* The solution would necessarily involve extremely intrusive laws regulating what kind of software is permissible to run.

    * There might be a vulnerability that Apple is not aware of, but they would still be unable to exploit that which they do not know exists.

    1. People seem to think that Apple simply refuses to help; in truth, they cannot help, as in they lack the ability.*

      This isn’t exactly a clarification but it’s not exactly you’re fault. Apple’s services and encryption vary from service to service and over time. First, customers have to activate and participate in order to ensure end-to-end encryption. Assuming that’s done, most everything through Apple is encrypted in transit now, but that’s just in transit and to/through Apple. Mail is not stored encrypted anywhere that Apple controls. Other stuff may or may not be stored encrypted and of the stuff that is stored encrypted, it’s not entirely clear whether it’s encrypted with the customer’s/phone’s key or Apple’s (e.g. it would seem to be impossible for the customer to hold the keys, or *all* the keys, to data that Apple has stored on third party hardware without their knowledge).

      Personally, the jaded part of me is beginning to believe this obfuscation and repeated cat-and-mouse game is pure kabuki.

      1. First, customers have to activate and participate in order to ensure end-to-end encryption.

        This happens automatically (it is opt-out) for iMessage, which is end-to-end encrypted, not just in transit.

        Assuming that’s done, most everything through Apple is encrypted in transit now, but that’s just in transit and to/through Apple. Mail is not stored encrypted anywhere that Apple controls.

        Absolutely true, Mail is not typically encrypted, unless the user and recipient are both explicitly using something to encrypt. I was thinking about messages via the iMessage app, but this is a valid point. Apple likely has the plaintext of emails, since the recipients would likely be unable to decrypt.

        e.g. it would seem to be impossible for the customer to hold the keys, or *all* the keys, to data that Apple has stored on third party hardware without their knowledge

        Why is this? I might be missing something, but if the customer encrypts something locally and pushes it to iCloud, why would Apple necessarily have any key for it?

        Personally, the jaded part of me is beginning to believe this obfuscation and repeated cat-and-mouse game is pure kabuki.

        This is a reasonable suspicion imo.

    2. The solution would necessarily involve extremely intrusive laws regulating what kind of software is permissible to run.

      There are different scenarios.

      The FBI already can wiretap phones under court order. This includes key logging. That is, if you are under suspicion, the government can get at your phone data. No encryption is going to help with that; it’s an inevitable consequence of closed source software and over the air updates. Apple doesn’t even have to help the FBI with that.

      That is, even with perfect encryption, you’re not secure from government spying. Perfect encryption only “protects” you when you mostly don’t care anymore, namely when you’re dead. Before you’re dead, the government can already make your life miserable if you don’t give up your keys.

  13. The simple, and long term solution to this issue, is form the phone makers to open their devices up to third party encryption apps.

    Then it’s all on the owner/user.

    1. And I’ll be the first to concede that simple isn’t always easy, while the path of least resistance is inevitably easy.

    2. That’s not going to give you as much protection as you think; the FBI can still do keystroke and screen logging, and Apple doesn’t even have to help them. That’s because the FBI can install and sign arbitrary software on those phones over the air, both the main processor and the baseband processor.

      1. Nothing is perfect, and if you are a target for that sort of approach then you are already a target for everything else including bugging of your home/auto/office, video surveillance, etc.

        As is, it would still be more protection than anyone currently has.

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  15. You can add Obama to the list as well.
    He said:
    “If, technologically, it is possible to make an impenetrable device where there is no key, no door at all, how do we apprehend the child pornographer, how do we disrupt a terrorist plot?”

    “If [the government] can’t get in, then everyone is walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket.”

    And this gem here:

    “[Edward Snowden’s revelations several years ago] vastly overstated dangers to U.S. citizens in terms of spying.”

  16. Saying “Apple should help access an accused criminal’s phone” isn’t the same as saying “all encryption should be illegal”.

    I’m not sure what you’re objecting to either. Wiretapping has been around as long as there have been wires to tap. Are you saying wiretapping should never occur? Do you object to the FBI installing key loggers on PCs and phones under court order? Audio listening devices?

    I mean, before I join in in your outrage, I’d like to know what you want me to be outraged about.

  17. Apple and the rest of the ISPs are full of it. If the FBI had gone to a Chinese office of Apple, and posed as Chinese government officials, they would have turned over the data. They do what they are told in China, using Chinese government controlled servers because they want access to the customers.

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