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FBI’s Comey Proposes an ‘Adult Conversation’ About Giving the FBI Whatever They Want

Two words from a government official to dismiss decades of expertise on encryption.

James ComeyJeff Malet Photography/NewscomWhen a powerful, unelected federal official says we need to have an "adult conversation" about the limits of federal authority as contrasted with the civil liberties of the people he allegedly works for, hold on to your butts.

Whenever somebody declares the need for an "adult conversation" in the first place, they are suggesting that one hasn't already been happening, and often accomplishes little but to raise the hackles. It is a deliberate insult against those with opposing views. In this particular case, the person invoking the term is FBI Director James Comey, and it's pretty much directed at the entire tech sector and privacy advocates who have been pushing back (for decades) against government attempts to tamper with and weaken encryption.

There's something remarkably telling about the man saying we need to have an "adult conversation" on encryption limits primarily because he can't just get whatever he wants. Isn't that the child's argument? The government wants this information. Give us this information!

Of course, as always, it's couched in terms of the alleged threat of the Internet going "dark" and federal investigators worried they're not able to track down alleged criminals and terrorists. Comey complained about it at a tech symposium today. The Associated Press reports:

"The conversation we've been trying to have about this has dipped below public consciousness now, and that's fine," Comey said. "Because what we want to do is collect information this year so that next year we can have an adult conversation."

The American people, he said, have a reasonable expectation of privacy in houses, cars and electronic devices — but he argued that right is not absolute.

"With good reason, the people of the United States — through judges and law enforcement — can invade our public spaces," Comey said, adding that that "bargain" has been at the heart of the country since its inception.

This is what he thinks is an "adult conversation." While Comey wants to present this is a reasonably as possible, recall that when they found a phone in the possession by a terrorist that was protected with a password, what the Department of Justice thought was the reasonable, adult response was to try to use the courts to conscript Apple and to actually force it to compromise its own security systems to give the government access to the phone's contents. The government wants things! Give the government those things! This is the "adult conversation" Comey's side is having right now.

No, privacy is not absolute, but just because they government has the authority to pursue information related to crimes doesn't mean they're guaranteed access to it. I'll dredge up an old example: A suspect may take a box containing evidence to a crime and bury it somewhere out in the desert. The government absolutely has the authority to try to track down that evidence and use any number of tools to do so. But they can't order the desert to cough it up for them or command some desert experts to track it down for them (though they can certainly hire them).

The "adult conversation" that's actually already happening is trying to get people like Comey to understand that there's no magical system where the Department of Justice (or any other government entity) can get access to information to encrypted data that doesn't leave the whole system vulnerable.

The "adult conversation" is about trying to get authoritarian senators like Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) to understand that the legislation they wrote to order tech companies to assist the government in cracking their own security was so bad—so childish, in fact—that it's impossible to imagine any tech or privacy-minded adult trusting what they'll suggest next. The "adult conversation" is "white hat" hackers showing how easy it is for a mistake to compromise the data of millions of computer users. The "adult conversation" is about understanding that oppressive governments will use these tools to punish and imprison their own citizens.

If Comey wants to have an "adult conversation," we should maybe set encryption aside for now and talk about the absurdity of our government-sponsored drug war that will never, ever succeed any more than any other prohibition has ever succeeded and why the government still clings to the illogical, absurd (and childish) fantasy that illegal drug use can somehow be halted. Maybe if we had that "adult conversation" and brought it to its logical conclusion (ending this foolish war), we could actually then go back and determine how important it actually is for the FBI to be able to defeat encryption. Evidence shows the relentless drive to perpetuate this drug war is playing a major role in this encryption fight, not terrorism, as the feds would have us believe.

For more "adult conversation," read Andrea Castillo's piece today about how the feds clearly prioritize the ability to snoop on us over the need to protect us from hackers.

Photo Credit: Jeff Malet Photography/Newscom

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  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    If the FBI has a warrant to search my house and no one will let them in, do they have a master key to my front door lock, or do they break down the door?

  • The Other Kevin||

    How about having an adult conversation about how people can become too important to prosecute?

  • SugarFree||

    Damn, Scott. A+ rant.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Agreed.

  • Rich||

    Seconded.

  • Scarecrow & WoodChipper Repair||

    My thoughts were one word shorter or longer than the alt-text, depending on whether I added the explanatory clause.

  • ||

    ...the people of the United States — through judges and law enforcement — can invade our public spaces...

    And there it is. You/we are the government. When the government orders you to do something, it's exactly the same thing as if you had decided to do this thing yourself. Any disagreement with this is a breach of the social contract.

    They really believe this. Which is why they find any resistance so mind-boggling. We see the Tyler Durden; to gov't officials, all they see is the narrator hitting himself, and they find it as bizarre and alien as one might expect.

  • Scarecrow & WoodChipper Repair||

    In a pig's eye they believe that. It's a handy dandy rationalization they trot out, but what they really believe is that they are in power so they have the right to tell everybody else what to do. It's blind naked ambition and control freakery, nothing more, nothing less. They are despots pure and simple.

  • Deep Lurker||

    You give them too much credit for self-honesty. Yes, they're despots full of blind naked ambition and control freakery, but what makes them truly monstrous is that they actually do believe themselves and their actions to be decent, honorable, and good.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Don't take it personally, Shackleford. Comey is just saying that unless you're on the front line of facilitating Christmas Tree bombers or running child pornography websites like the feds, these concepts are above your pay grade.

  • You Sound Like a Prog (MJG)||

    Eat my shorts!

  • Ceci n'est pas un woodchipper||

    Here's a good topic for an adult conversation: under what circumstances would the government need powers beyond those granted by a subpoena or a warrant to investigate a specific crime or a credible threat so badly that it would be worth creating a surveillance state? And if this were the case, how would said government be less of a threat to our civilization than the danger it's purporting to defend us against?

  • ||

    Well, when the State is so incompetent that every threat that they don't manufacture and nurture from a pissed-off loser to a pissed-off loser looking to buy a bomb from an agent of the state that recruited them and encouraged them to want to bomb people is an immediate threat because they didn't know about it until it happened, you can understand how they would want to be able to skip all the due process and go straight into grabbing "evidence" and perpwalking people who make them look bad.

  • ||

    Well, when the State is so incompetent that every threat that they don't manufacture and nurture from a pissed-off loser to a pissed-off loser looking to buy a bomb from an agent of the state that recruited them and encouraged them to want to bomb people is an immediate threat because they didn't know about it until it happened, you can understand how they would want to be able to skip all the due process and go straight into grabbing "evidence" and perpwalking people who make them look bad.

  • ||

    Thanks, squirrels. Way to make me look less competent than the FBI.

  • Mr. Flanders||

    How is that one sentence? How?

  • ||

    English is built for cromulent ranting.

  • Caput Lupinum||

    Blame English's Germanic roots.

  • Scarecrow & WoodChipper Repair||

    You know who else had Germanic roots?

  • Crusty Juggler||

    "Well son, when a government and citizen love each other very much, the government wants to do all they can to protect the citizen from all the bad people in the world. Some people - let's call them broccolis - don't think that the government should do all they can to protect the citizen from the bad people. The broccolis think that the citizen should keep some things to themselves, you know like locking your bedroom door. The broccolis are wrong. The government should know everything there is to know about you, just in case a bad guy is going to use it to hurt you. The government is older and wiser than you. You see son, the government is good, and the bad guys are bad, and the broccolis are bad, too. Now, get out of here and let me go through your things."

  • phenryinohio||

    Wonderful.

  • ||

    I would have said, "go fuck yourself", but its personal opinion. How about this: When you want my online information, you can have whatever my lawyers decide is pertinent to your investigation just like Hillary.

  • Rich||

    Now, *that* is an adult conversation.

  • LarryA||

    And Comey would probably come back with, "Well, the next POTUS didn't need a secure server for her Secretary of State files. What makes your information special?"

  • ||

    Technically, she did. She just had semi competent IT folks.

  • kbolino||

    One should ask Director Comey how "adult" it is to publicly destroy one's own credibility then come asking for favors from the public.

  • John C. Randolph||

    I see that Comey's trying to be as slimy as Hoover was.

    -jcr

  • Chipwooder||

    Look, I may have violated the law, but it was with no criminal intent, so why does Comey want to hassle me?

  • toolkien||

    Pretty much gives you a flavor of who is leading us today. I've known several politicians/party hacks/bureaucrats during my time. They put their pants on one leg at a time, if you know what I mean. They are NOTHING special by ANY means. They are you and me. If not worse.

    But they THINK they're special. And since they're special, you're not. If you think otherwise, ad hominems for the win.

  • LV||

    "C" and "D"s. That's who usually does politics and not surprisingly "media" as well. "C"s and "D"s.

  • joebanana||

    This coming from a man with absolutely NO law enforcement background, and a criminal history himself. Remember HSBC and the drug cartel money laundering scandal? That's where comey comes from. Then his office conspires with the DOJ to obstruct justice with the "email scandal".

  • Jerryskids||

    Here's an adult conversation starter: What does "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security" mean to you? Please address the distinction between the "right" and the "duty" to overthrow an oppressive government in your answer, please.

  • LarryA||

    Followup: He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.

  • LarryA||

    This reminds me of the "dialogue" the gun control folks keep having about "common sense laws," where first they talk and then they listen to their echo.

  • phenryinohio||

    I think I am ready for an adult conversation Mr. Comey. Two things to discuss. First, I employ you. Second, read the 4th amendment. It has simple words that even an adult like you can understand.

    OK?

  • ant1sthenes||

    There's a difference between demanding a homeowner open his house to a search after having been given a warrant, and between demanding that all contractors build secret passageways into the houses they build in case the owner one day receives a warrant and does not (or cannot, on account of being dead) open up.

  • Rational Exuberance||

    James, the adults in the room are telling you to STFU and go to your room.

  • rudehost||

    Here is an adult conversation

    Child: Can I have 20 cookies
    Adult: No

    Cast Comey as the child and have him ask for 20 new domestic spying powers and you have a feel for the kind of adult conversation that is needed.

  • ipsum||

    Fuck Jim Comey. I never liked this rat bastard.

  • Gozer the Gozarian||

    James Comey needs to be reminded that as a government employee, a civil servant, he's our bitch, not the other way around.

    Government serves at the will of the people. If he wants to try to further erode the US Constitutional rights we have, no fucking way.

    He needs to be reminded who's holding the leash, and I think it deserves a good tug right now.

  • Longtobefree||

    Maybe you want to revisit a quote from the next President of the United States, the Honorable Hillary Clinton; "the second amendment, LIKE THE WHOLE CONSTITUTION, is subject to reasonable restrictions". (emphasis added)
    And the new supreme court will certainly agree.
    R.I.P. USA

  • Gozer the Gozarian||

    She's a stupid cunt.

  • Jim Strom||

    How is this not true? Is forbidding private researxh into chemical weapons a reasonable restriction? If so, then she spoke true.

  • PlaystoomuchHALO||

    The adults have already had the conversation and decided that the government was too childlike to be trusted with upholding the constitution...

  • ThomasD||

    Comey busts out with a patented Obama rhetorical trick and suddenly Shackford is outraged!!!1111!!!

    Welcome to the party.

  • Uncle Jay||

    RE: FBI's Comey Proposes an 'Adult Conversation' About Giving the FBI Whatever They Want
    Two words from a government official to dismiss decades of expertise on encryption.

    It's about time we can use X rated words.
    I didn't think The State would ever allow us to say what we want.
    Oh, wait.
    That can be dangerous.
    Never mind.

  • Malcolm Kyle||

    Prohibition has been a slow but relentless degradation (death by a zillion cuts) of all our cherished national and international institutions that will leave us crippled for numerous generations.

    * In 1989, The Kerry Committee found that the United States Department of State had made payments to drug-traffickers. Concluding, that even members of the U.S. State Department, themselves, were involved in drug trafficking. Some of the payments were made even after the traffickers had been indicted by federal law enforcement agencies - or even while these traffickers were under active investigation by these same agencies.

    * The involvement of the CIA in running Heroin from Vietnam, Southeast Asia and Afghanistan, and Cocaine from Central America, has been well documented, by the 1989 Kerry Committee report, academic researchers Alfred McCoy and Peter Dale Scott and the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Gary Webb.

    * If you support prohibition, or even simply tolerate it by looking the other way while others commit it, you are an accessory to a very serious moral transgression against humanity.

    * The United States re-legalized certain drug use in 1933. The drug was alcohol, and the 21st amendment re-legalized its production, distribution and sale. Both alcohol consumption and violent crime dropped immediately as a result. And very soon after, the American economy climbed out of that same prohibition engendered abyss into which it had foolishly fallen.

  • JWM||

    Let me see if I have this straight, the same guy that had an "investigation" done on Clinton which resulted in him saying to Clinton, "bad girl, bad girl, stop pissing on those emails" is now expecting me to believe him regarding what reasonable searches are?

  • Rockabilly||

    The greatest threat to individual liberty is the centralized socialist state.

  • culdees2020||

    If talks like a police state, smells like a police state then it's a police state.

  • Jim Strom||

    Did the FBI catch criminals when there was no Internet? If the answer is "yes", then they can catch criminals "without" an Internet (so-called going dark).

    Is freedom truly the foundation of America? Is it really above all else? If so, then we must not sacrifice it at ANY cost. Once we surrender our ideals, it doesn't matter if there is crime or not. Comey's job is to stop crime, and it's OK that he views things from the perspective of today's crimefighter; we should expect it. But, it's up to us to stand up and say "in the long run, the added risk of encryption-armed criminals is worth the long-term benefits of a government with limited power".

    Finally, if Comey had his way, we'd be at a crimefighting disadvantage. Encryption will exist regardless of laws, and likely be unbreakable, and the government can't practically stop it (outlaw encryption and only criminals will have encryption). The sooner the FBI sees that truth, the sooner they will start to adapt to the reality.

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