Privacy SOS

State and local law enforcement want the FBI to beat Apple so they can get inside your phone

As I blogged this morning, FBI director Jim Comey wants us to believe that his agency’s war against Apple is only about one phone, not about setting precedent that will impact all phones and all electronic devices. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. 

As the Intercept reports, law enforcement nationwide are already chomping at the bit to get access to encrypted data:

In Suffolk County, Mass., district attorney’s office spokesman Jake Wark said prosecutors “can’t rule out” bringing their own case of a locked cellphone before a judge, too. “It may be a question of finding the right case,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

“It’s going to have significant ramifications on us locally,” deputy chief Matt Rokus of Wisconsin’s Eau Claire Police Department told the city’s Leader-Telegram newspaper on Monday.

In South Dakota, Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Aaron McGowan told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that “the Court’s ruling could have a significant impact on conducting sensitive criminal investigations.”

The FBI was smart to pick a scary terrorism case with which to wage this war in the court of public opinion. A Pew poll shows a slight majority of Americans side with the FBI against Apple.

But if history is any lesson, the American people should be very careful about giving up their rights to privacy and security because of rare instances of extreme violence. Historical precedent says that new governmental powers obtained in this legal battle will mostly be used to put poor people and people of color in prison for routine offenses like drug crimes. That’s what happened with USA Patriot Act sneak and peeks. That’s what happened with invasive stingray cell phone spying devices. And that’s what’s going to happen with encryption backdoors, if the FBI gets its way. Extreme powers obtained under the guise of fighting rare, horrific violence eventually trickle down to become the modus operandi in routine law enforcement matters.

That’s the way it always works. The state and local law enforcement officials quoted in the Intercept understand it, but the FBI and Jim Comey are pretending otherwise because they want to sell the American public on a policy that will eventually hurt—not protect—us. Don’t let them.

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.