FBI director, James Comey, contends that encryption has allowed ’’dozens” of terrorists to elude arrest and to operate with impunity. At the same time, he takes a veiled swipe at the feckless President Obama for failing to heartily endorse corporate compliance with backdoor encryption. He made his remarks in an address to the Homeland Security Committee of Congress. If his allegations of terrorists running amok are true, it is indeed an alarming and unfortunate state of affairs. But it should not be used as a wedge to pry more privacy rights from citizens who always seems to get short shrift in these debates.
The controversy merely highlights the ineffective methods employed by law enforcement (despite possessing monstrous eavesdropping tools,) and raises some legitimate questions. One of these that comes to mind is that, if the FBI and other agencies have been so emasculated, why haven’t there been more terrorist attacks in the US – more bombs? Another vexing query is why does all the outrage seem to emanate from the FBI, which is focused on domestic criminal activity? Another – why has the White House backed away from endorsing encryption backdoors?
To many on the side of privacy, Comey’s claims ring hollow, and are just another chapter in his ’’going dark” narrative. Comey’s reference to the number ’’dozens” caught the attention of the moderator of the panel, chairman Ron Johnson, who pressed him on the issue,
“I’m a little concerned about numbers, but I will say, I’m surprised if it is only a couple dozen people who have been inspired by social media and then moved into encrypted accounts.”
It’s almost like a made-up number to satisfy Comey’s appetite for hyperbole and fed the equally enormous appetite of the pro-encryption committee.
Curiously, “dozens” is the number that Comey bandies about when speaking of terrorist events the agency has “disrupted.” I wonder how many have been arrested, brought to trial and incarcerated? If there were a significant number, wouldn’t we have heard about it? One would think so – that is, unless there haven’t been many, or any significant ones!
I know it’s a matter of national security, and hence the need for secrecy, but Comey further enlightened lawmakers by highlighting that terrorists often sought the subterfuge of encryption. When the usual social media sites were deemed to have been infiltrated by the feds,
“When they find a live one, they will move them off Twitter, and move them to an end-to-end encrypted messaging app.”
Without a court order, Comey argues, the FBI could not read such encrypted message traffic.
A Techdirt article raises the question as to whether the entire argument over encryption is really one of concern over bureaucratic paperwork, i.e. warrant requests, rather than being a technology issue, i.e., encryption. If that is the case, then maybe the FBI isn’t as in the dark as it thinks it is!
But what shouldn’t get lost in the conversation is that privacy and freedom is precious, and should not be easily surrendered by an overly complicit tech community. If we’ve learned anything from watching decades of the government’s gradual creep into private lives, it is that once it has begun, it is difficult if not impossible to reverse.