Privacy SOS

Law enforcement claims privacy harms security, but that’s false

FBI Director James Comey wants you to think the sky is falling because Apple—and soon Google—is encrypting your cell phone’s contents. In what can only be described as pure authoritarian-speak, Comey framed the moves to protect user data as efforts to help criminals avoid justice.

"What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to hold themselves beyond the law," Comey said.

Comey wasn’t the first law enforcement official to issue Chicken Little warnings about Apple’s encryption decision. Earlier in the week the Washington Post published a fear-mongering opinion piece written by former FBI official Ronald T. Hosko, who claimed that Apple’s policy would have led to the death of a kidnapping victim in North Carolina.

Any reader versed in the basics of electronic surveillance knew that Hosko’s claim was false on its face, but the Post published it anyway, under a screaming headline warning of impending public safety disasters. 'Privacy kills!', went the argument. But no, it doesn’t, actually. And shortly after the inflammatory piece was published, the Post issued this correction, acknowledging that the central claim around which Hosko's argument was built was a lie:

Editors note: This story incorrectly stated that Apple and Google’s new encryption rules would have hindered law enforcement’s ability to rescue the kidnap victim in Wake Forest, N.C. This is not the case. The piece has been corrected.

The scary kidnapping story actually had nothing to do with device encryption, but at least the former FBI official tried to provide the public with an example to back up his fear-mongering. Perhaps because no such example exists, FBI director Comey did not point to a single instance in which law enforcement would have been stymied by Apple’s encryption.

That lack of empirical evidence hasn’t stopped police nationwide from issuing grave warnings about the threat personal privacy protecting technology poses to the sanctity of human life everywhere.

“Apple will become the phone of choice for the pedophile,” the Washington Post quotes Chicago police detective John J. Escalante saying. “The average pedophile at this point is probably thinking, I’ve got to get an Apple phone.”

What does it say about our law enforcement officials that the first thing that comes to mind when they think about digital privacy is "child sex abuse"? Like the NSA before it, law enforcement is telling the public: If you care about your privacy, you must be up to no good.

It’s hard to imagine a more authoritarian mindset.

There’s a lot of dishonesty among law enforcement—and misrepresentation in the press—about what Apple’s announcement really means for user privacy. As I laid out in another post, it doesn’t mean cops won’t be able to spy on our phones. At best, it means border agents won’t be able to rifle through our cell phone data at airports or land crossings. If that’s a grave threat to national security, we have serious problems that have nothing to do with privacy technology.

Ominously, the FBI is promising that it will have “conversations” with Apple and Google about their moves to protect user privacy through automatic encryption. Let’s hope when the bureau inevitably asks for a “backdoor” into their encryption systems, these technology companies tell the nation’s most powerful domestic law enforcement agency to take a hike.

The FBI's freak-out about encryption has framed the debate as if privacy is the opposite of security, but that's not true. As Bruce Schneier argues, privacy and security are not opposing interests. Apple and Google's decisions to encrypt phone data will have a hugely positive impact on the security of tens of millions of people.

Desiring privacy doesn’t make one a criminal or a suspect. It makes one human. And contrary to the FBI's baseless claims, it won't make us less secure.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.