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Encryption after Comey

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

May 15, 2017

So, James Comey is out at the FBI. As you probably know, he was a staunch advocate for weakening encryption, so that law enforcement agencies could nab the bad guys through easily accessed backdoors. He never seemed to grasp the concept that what was good for the goose (law enforcement) would also be good for the gander (bad actors).

Maybe this notion was lost on him because he was blinded by his own mission. Instead, Comey expressed his exasperation with Silicon Valley’s lack of patriotism, and likened their decision not to cooperate with him as a business decision – not one of principle to protect their customers.

An article in Motherboard chronicles his efforts and oratory to get the tech firms to toe the line. We are reminded of the most publicized dustup with Apple over the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter in early 2016. By the way, as an aside, Donald Trump jumped on the Comey bandwagon at this time, joining him in calling for Apple to provide access to the phone.

Comey reasoned that companies smart enough to develop strong encryption for their phones could also find a way for that backdoor to be made safe, to protect customers. Sounded plausible, right? However, because this scenario, though sounding simple, was actually much more complicated, Apple refused. It cited the very real danger such a move would pose to iPhone customers. It could potentially allow hackers or other non-US agencies to access people’s phones through the easier, encryption-circumventing backdoors.

Eventually, the FBI cracked the encryption without Apple’s help, and the matter disappeared from the public’s consciousness. However, Comey’s fondness for encryption-busting access, and propensity for targeting manufacturers with his ire, began a couple of years earlier – not long after he was appointed FBI Director by then-President Obama.

In autumn  2014, soon after Apple and Google announced that their mobile operating systems would be encrypted by default, Comey initiated his verbal assaults in earnest. At the time, he famously coined the phrase “going dark,” which quickly became not only a buzz-phrase, but a raison d’etre and rallying cry for law enforcement. He painted a picture of pedophiles and other predators being allowed to prey with impunity on children and other vulnerable innocents. He said:

If the challenges of real-time interception threaten to leave us in the dark, encryption threatens to lead all of us to a very dark place.

The encryption-challenged Comey kept on the offensive throughout the next year, redirecting his rhetoric from pedophiles toward terrorists. He blamed encryption for aiding and abetting ISIS:

They don’t need to find propaganda; it’s buzzing in their pocket. There is a device,  a devil on their shoulder all day long saying kill, kill, kill, kill. We can see them give directions (on Twitter sending them) to end-to-end encrypted app and they give them instructions.

Comey then made a comment that may foreshadow the future of encryption and backdoors under a Trump administration, though he could not have foreseen or predicted (nor did other polls or pundits) a Trump presidency. Back then he commented that “Congress might have to force” companies like Apple and Google to undermine their encryption.

With the new president being cool to Silicon Valley already (for supporting his opponent in the election), and with the Republicans holding a majority in Congress, Comey’s remarks are taking shape and have currency. Except for one thing – the encryption antagonist, Comey, will not be around to lead the assault. So, what’s likely in store for us?

Well, the frontrunner to replace Comey could be Deputy FBI Director, Andrew McCabe. He has been more circumspect in the encryption debate, pragmatically pointing out that many encrypted messaging services operate overseas – outside of the FBI’s jurisdiction. That could throw a wrench into any mechanism that would seek to destroy encryption. After all, many customers, and billions of dollars of device-manufacturing companies’ revenues, emanate from abroad – again, outside the FBI’s reach.

I guess we should be thankful that the likely next FBI Director will have his or her hands full with other things to focus on, besides the encryption issue. What with Hillary Clinton’s email fiasco still in play, and the investigations into Russian meddling in the presidential campaign still very much alive, we can only hope that the encryption argument is laid to rest – at least for the time being. Of course, with the enigmatic President Trump hovering, I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

Image credit: DonkeyHotey/Flikr.
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