By Tim Cushing
FBI Director Chris Wray’s potshots at Apple during the joint press conference about the Pensacola Air Base shooting weren’t the only ones delivered by a federal employee. Famous anti-encryptionist/current DOJ boss Bill Barr made even more pointed comments during his remarks, mostly glossing over the FBI’s brilliant discovery that the shooter was linked to al Qaeda — something al Qaeda had claimed shortly after the shooting took place.
The DOJ never got the court battle it wanted. Its second attempt to talk a court into compelled decryption never gained momentum and FBI techs were eventually able to do the thing the DOJ couldn’t make Apple do: access the phones’ contents. Barr’s comments had very little to do with the supposed matter at hand: the investigation of a shooting on a US military base. Instead, Barr gave perfunctory thanks to the hardworking men and women of the FBI before moving on to declaring Apple an enemy of the people, if not an actual enemy of the state.
Here’s the first smear, which insinuates device encryption is a criminal co-conspirator.
Within one day of the shootings, the FBI sought and obtained court orders, supported by probable cause, authorizing the FBI to search the contents of both phones as part of its investigation. The problem was that the phones were locked and the FBI did not have the passwords, so they needed help to get in. We asked Apple for assistance and so did the President. Unfortunately, Apple would not help us unlock the phones. Apple had deliberately designed them so that only the user — in this case, the terrorist — could gain access to their contents.
Yes, this is a deliberate design decision by Apple. It secures all users’ phones, not just users who engage in criminal acts. Barr wants insecure devices for everyone because it would make things easier for law enforcement. That it would make things easier for other criminals (phone thieves, stalkers, malicious hackers, etc.) never seems to cross his mind. Or if it does, he figures it’s a sacrifice he’s willing to force Americans to make.
That’s not hyperbole. Later in Barr’s remarks, he claims it’s not even up to the public to vote with their phone-buying dollars on the subject of device encryption and the problems it poses for law enforcement. And despite this comment, Barr doesn’t want it left up to citizens to vote with their actual votes.
Striking this balance should not be left to corporate boardrooms. It is a decision to be made by the American people through their representatives.
That sounds almost democratic. If you choose to stop reading here, it almost appears Barr will accept the will of the people even if they would prefer device security over encryption backdoors. But Barr doesn’t stop there. He expands on this thought, dismissing the American people’s momentary involvement in this issue.
The developments in this case demonstrate the need for a legislative solution. The truth is that we needed luck, in addition to ingenuity, to get into the phones this time. There is no guarantee that we will be successful again or that a delay of four months (or longer) will not have significant consequences for the safety of Americans. In addition, the costs in time and money of devising alternative methods of accessing encrypted information can be enormous. This is not a scalable solution.
There it is: a call for mandated encryption backdoors. If Apple and other device makers aren’t willing to bend to Barr’s will, perhaps the legislative branch can put its collective boot on tech companies’ necks.
Barr’s anti-encryption pitches are still as dishonest as ever. When not portraying encryption as almost solely beneficial to criminals, Barr deliberately misconstrues what’s at stake. There’s a reason he keeps discussing this in terms of privacy when it’s actually about security. Privacy has wiggle room. Security doesn’t. Encryption is secure. Backdoored encryption isn’t. It’s that simple. Barr’s term-swap deceives listeners, many of whom are lawmakers.
Apple’s desire to provide privacy for its customers is understandable, but not at all costs. Under our nation’s long-established constitutional principles, where a court authorizes a search for evidence of a crime, an individual’s privacy interests must yield to the broader needs of public safety.
It’s not a privacy issue when the government demands all backdoors in the nation remain unlocked just in case law enforcement needs to enter them. It’s a security issue. That’s pretty much what Barr wants, using houses as an analogy for devices capable of holding far more sensitive info and data than any home possibly could. Barr wants encryption that can be bypassed at will. That’s not a privacy issue. It’s about securing devices users rely on to handle almost everything in their daily lives. Security helps protect their privacy, but the important thing here is the security — not the government’s lawful invasions of privacy when warrants are served.
If the FBI can break into a device without Apple’s assistance — as it has in at least two high-profile cases — it can do it again. Weakening encryption shouldn’t even be a discussion topic at this point. For all the talk about the problems encryption poses to securing the nation, arguing that a nation filled with insecure devices would be more secure than what we have now is ridiculous.