October 21, 2020

Dear Reuters: This Is NOT How You Report On Dishonest, Disingenuous Talking Points From US Officials Regarding Encryption

Attorney General William Barr and his DOJ and FBI have really ramped up their bullshit campaign against the public being able to use encryption. President Trump himself weighed in himself with some ignorant statements, suggesting that Apple owes him some sort of quid pro quo, because his policies may have helped them on trade:

We are helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues, and yet they refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements. They will have to step up to the plate and help our great Country, NOW!

This is dumb and wrong for many, many reasons. First of all, no matter what the US government has done on an unrelated issue, that doesn’t mean that Apple should do something on a totally different issue. Second, the issue is not Apple “refusing to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements.” It’s Apple offering encryption that protects all of us. It is not possible for Apple to “unlock” the phones of criminals without doing so for everyone else as well, putting everyone’s information at tremendous risk. And, for very little benefit, seeing as there are multiple private companies who have figure out how to crack iPhone encryption and which the DOJ and other law enforcement agencies are already using.

Indeed, outside of the President and the DOJ, other parts of the federal government have come down against having Apple break encryption, including the intelligence community and the Defense Department who recently told Congress how important general purpose consumer encryption is in protecting national security.

But, because only the other side of the debate seems to get any attention, and because Trump toady’s feel the need to kiss up to the President, now we have Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, also repeating nonsense about Apple and encryption:

“I understand the president’s view, and it is absolutely critical for our technology companies to cooperate with law enforcement,” Mnuchin told CNBC in an interview.

Mnuchin later told reporters at the White House that he had not discussed the issue with Apple and did not know the specifics at hand. “I know Apple has cooperated in the past on law enforcement issues, and I expect they would continue … to cooperate.”

Damn straight he doesn’t “understand the specifics at hand.” Still, political grifters spewing nonsense is nothing new. What frustrates me is how Reuters framed this story. Its headline blared: “Mnuchin urges Apple, other technology companies to work with U.S. law enforcement”

That’s really bad framing, because it suggests to basically everyone (totally incorrectly) that the issue here is that Apple and other tech companies are somehow not “working with U.S. law enforcement.” Except they are. Where possible and where reasonable and allowed by law. The issue at play when it comes to encryption literally has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not tech companies should or should not “work with” law enforcement, but rather whether they should put all of our security at risk, in order to make it marginally easier in a few limited cases for law enforcement to get into phones it probably already has access to through other means.

When framed that way, it’s obviously dumb. But anyone reading Reuters’ coverage of the issue won’t get that. They’ll think that Apple is somehow taking some sort of stand against US law enforcement. This is what Trump, Barr, and apparently Mnuchin, would like people to think, but it’s not true, and it’s fundamentally bad journalism for Reuters to frame it that way.
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