As if the government’s ubiquitous prying eyes weren’t intolerable enough already, now they’ve started complaining—rather, whining—about the difficulty of cracking end-to-end encryption in the interest of criminal and terror investigations. In fact, FBI Director James Comey and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates appeared before two Senate committees to do exactly that—leaving privacy advocates and technology experts convinced that legally required backdoors are in the works.
Not only are grievances about encryption wholly unjustified, but the proposed solution—for companies to insert backdoors allowing government access to encrypted communications—is both technologically illiterate and contrary to the purported agenda. From what Comey and Yates explained to the judiciary and intelligence committees, they are ostensibly targeting apps like WhatsApp—and even huge companies, like Apple and Google. No matter the aim, the proposed solution is illogical and threatens privacy rights in an alarming way.
As could be predicted, Comey used the overbroad, fear-based “terrorism” excuse to attempt to prove the need for government access to, well, everything Americans want to keep private. While the FBI, Comey explained, has thus far been able to foil ISIS plots, “I cannot see me stopping these indefinitely.” Texas Senator John Cornyn—sounding like a paranoid fanatic—urged Comey to emphasize to lawmakers that lack of a solution would cause U.S. residents to die; but Comey vowed, “I am not trying to scare folks.”
In a blog post in Lawfare two days before his appearance before the committees, Comey pushed the encryption issue, writing, “[M]y job is to try to keep people safe. In universal strong encryption, I see something that is with us already and growing every day that will inexorably affect my ability to do that job.”
These are interesting statements for the director of the FBI to make, considering what the recent analysis of all wiretaps in 2014 by the Federal Courts actually revealed: of 3,554 total conversations subject to wiretaps, encryption managed to stymie government access in just four cases. In fact, state wiretaps encountered encrypted communications in just 22 instances (down from 41 in 2013), accounting for two of the four instances where the government wasn’t able to crack encryption. Federal wiretaps had even lower numbers—making Comey’s statement downright illogical—though the feds were unable to crack encryption twice, they only encountered scrambled communications three times.
But the idea that Comey and the government need to protect Americans from the unrelenting ISIS threat by having guaranteed access to private communications is indisputably absurd. Wiretaps, in general, increased by 78% in a decade according to the report. But a striking majority weren’t even used to prevent the terror threat the FBI director claims is so crucial, that it must have access to encryption to prevent—drug investigations accounted for 89% of all wiretaps last year.
Of course, these figures account for reported wiretaps—and vastly understate a much higher total. After the release of the official federal total, four providers called bullshit. Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile said together that they, alone, had implemented 10,712 wiretaps pursuant to orders to do so. Without accounting for other carriers around the country, that discrepancy is already triple what the FBI claims—and almost certainly represents a higher percentage of encrypted communications the agency had difficulty with. This makes Comey’s complaint not just ridiculous, but disingenuous, as well.
Giving law enforcement “exceptional access” to data storage and communications systems through a backdoor would open those platforms to hackers, criminals, and foreign or enemy agents—not to mention the very terrorist groups Comey is claiming the need to monitor. When experts explained the contradiction—that government access would open the door for everyone else—Comey replied, “Really?” He also added, “Maybe no one will be creative enough unless you force them to”—intimating the possibility of not-too-distant legislation mandating backdoor access as experts have widely theorized and warned about.
“These proposals [for exceptional access] are unworkable in practice, raise enormous legal and ethical questions, and would undo progress on security at a time when internet vulnerabilities are causing extreme economic harm,” states the report “Keys Under Doormats” by a group of computer scientists and security experts about the requirement government access via backdoors. “[N]ew law enforcement requirements are likely to introduce unanticipated, hard to detect security flaws. Beyond these and other technical vulnerabilities, the prospect [raises the issues of] how such an environment would be governed and how to ensure that such systems would respect human rights and the rule of law.”
In an interview on Democracy Now! one of the report’s authors, computer technologist Bruce Schneier, advised, “It’s extraordinary that free governments are demanding that security be weakened because the government might want to have access. This is the kind of thing we see out of Russia and China and Syria.” Referring to Comey’s desire for the availability to access when called for by a warrant, he said, “I can’t design a computer that operates differently when a piece of paper is nearby.”
Senator Ron Wyden has vocally and persistently criticized the government’s premise for ever-expanding surveillance tactics and domestic surveillance, in general. He used “Genius”—a platform more often used for annotating song lyrics that allows comments and notes in a sidebar—to critically tear apart the arguments in Comey’s blog post.
“Undermining encryption will not solve the tension between those seeking to enforce the law and those seeking to break it,” he noted. “What will change is that good, law-abiding Americans will lose their ability to communicate privately without breaking the law. And trying to restrict the use of encryption would cast suspicion on those who legitimately seek protected communications, such as journalists, whistleblowers, attorneys, and human rights activists […] It’s time to stop attacking the technology and start focusing on real solutions to the threats facing our nation.”
As the public becomes increasingly alerted to the inarguable fact that the U.S. government has an unquenchable thirst for power and hegemony, dissent and calls to revolt—even by a former senator—are gaining momentum. And this increasingly paranoid, money-hungry control-freak posing as our government consistently displays oppressive and fascist tendencies that belie what is perhaps the most dangerous threat of all—the government, itself.
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