Privacy and counter-terrorism efforts are mutually exclusive, or at least, that’s what FBI Director James Comey would have you believe.
Comey once again trotted out the tired terror trope on Wednesday as part a gripe against WhatsApp’s expanded end-to-end encryption, which now allows more than a billion people to communicate without worrying about eavesdroppers.
Comey’s argument against private communication? Some of those people could be terrorists.
“WhatsApp has over a billion customers, overwhelmingly good people, but in that billion customers are terrorists and criminals, so that now-ubiquitous feature of all WhatsApp products will affect both sides of the house,” Comey said in comments published by Politico.
Comey went on to say WhatsApp’s encryption will “inevitably” “be an impediment” to both criminal and national security wiretap orders. Comey said he was unsure if there would be further encryption litigation, but said a “collision” of interests is already happening.
Right, here it goes.
First, what happened on 9/11 in New York and later in Paris and Brussels and in all the other terror attacks in the United States and abroad was terrible. Each attack was scary and heartbreaking and has understandably forced many people to question their safety and what kind of world we all live in.
The U.S. government in particular has been overly keen to cast terrorists as amorphous boogeymen and has shamelessly played on the fears that follow these attacks to coerce Americans to give up their privacy, most recently via its war against encryption.
What once may have been an earnest effort to keep citizens safe has turned into an all-out information grab. And the greed has yielded precious few results.
Take the NSA’s information gathering programs, for example.
According to a January 2014 report from non-profit think tank the New America Foundation, a total of 225 individuals were “recruited by al-Qaeda or a like-minded group or inspired by al-Qaeda’s ideology, and charged in the United States with an act of terrorism” in the 12 plus years since 9/11. Of those, just 1.8 percent of cases came from the NSA’s controversial mass collection of citizens’ telephone metadata.
As the foundation concluded, “surveillance of American phone metadata has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism and only the most marginal of impacts on preventing terrorist-related activity, such as fundraising for a terrorist group. Furthermore, our examination of the role of the database of U.S. citizens’ telephone metadata in the single plot the government uses to justify the importance of the program…calls into question the necessity of the Section 215 bulk collection program.”
But that’s the NSA. Where does the FBI figure in?
According to the report, only eight percent of the 225 terrorism cases were initiated by “other non-NSA intelligence provided by the CIA, FBI, etc.” Eight percent. That’s 18 cases since 2001.
You know what works better than giving the FBI and NSA blanket access to our communications? Old school detective work and community policing.
The report found community and family tips, informant information, routine law enforcement and suspicious activity reports accounted for the initiation of nearly half of all cases. The terrorists themselves even did half as well as the FBI et al., with four percent of cases springing up when a “militant self-disclosed by publicizing his extremist activity.”
And yet, this has not stopped the FBI and other in the U.S. intelligence community from trying to gain access to mobile user data.
In the second half of 2015, Verizon said it received between 0 and 499 National Security Letters from the FBI for information regarding between 500 and 999 “selectors” used to identify Verizon customers. Including warrants, subpoenas and emergency law enforcement requests, the carrier said it received a total of 139,568 demands for customer data during the last six months of 2015.
Apple – which recently tussled publicly with the FBI over access to one of the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhones – didn’t break out requests by agency, but said it received a total of 4,000 device requests impacting more than 16,000 devices and 1,015 account requests impacting nearly 5,200 accounts from the United States alone in the second half of 2015. Additionally, Apple said it received between 1,250 and 1,499 National Security requests impacting between 1,000 and 1,249 accounts during the second half of 2015.
And the number of accounts and devices impacted by these government and law enforcement requests continues to grow.
Based on the evidence, however, Comey’s reasoning for Americans to give up our privacy and the right to protect our data is a flimsy one at best and nothing more than a tired trope at worst.
Filed Under: Industry regulations