Recently, FBI Director James Comey gave a speech at the Brookings Institute decrying crypto. It was transparently Orwellian, arguing for a police-state. In this post, I’ll demonstrate why, quoting bits of the speech.
“The people of the FBI are sworn to protect both security and liberty”
This detail is important. Tyrants suppress civil liberties in the name of national security and public safety. This oath taken by FBI agents, military personnel, and the even the president, is designed to prevent such tyrannies.
Comey repeatedly claims that FBI agents both understand their duty and are committed to it. That Comey himself misunderstands his oath disproves both assertions. This reinforces our belief that FBI agents do not see their duty as protecting our rights, but instead see rights as an impediment in pursuit of some other duty.
Freedom is Danger
The book 1984 describes the concept of “doublethink“, with political slogans as examples: “War is Peace”, “Ignorance is Strength”, and “Freedom is Slavery”. Comey goes full doublethink:
Some have suggested there is a conflict between liberty and security. I disagree. At our best, we in law enforcement, national security, and public safety are looking for security that enhances liberty. When a city posts police officers at a dangerous playground, security has promoted liberty—the freedom to let a child play without fear.
He’s wrong. Liberty and security are at odds. That’s what the 4th Amendment says. We wouldn’t be having this debate if they weren’t at odds.
He follows up with more doublethink, claiming “we aren’t seeking a back-door”, but instead are instead interested in “developing intercept solutions during the design phase”. Intercept solutions built into phones is the very definition of a backdoor, of course.
“terror terror terror terror terror”
“child child child child child child”
Comey mentions terrorism 5 times and child exploitation 6 times. This is transparently the tactic of the totalitarian, demagoguery based on emotion rather than reason.
Fear of terrorism on 9/11 led to the Patriot act, granting law enforcement broad new powers in the name of terrorism. Such powers have been used overwhelming for everything else. The most telling example is the detainment of David Miranda in the UK under a law that supposedly only applied to terrorists. Miranda was carrying an encrypted copy of Snowden files — clearly having nothing to do with terrorism. It was clearly exploitation of anti-terrorism laws for the purposes of political suppression.
Any meaningful debate doesn’t start with the headline grabbing crimes, but the ordinary ones, like art theft and money laundering. Comey has to justify his draconian privacy invasion using those laws, not terrorism.
The independent judiciary has been significantly weakened in recent years. We have secret courts, NSLs, and judges authorizing extraordinary powers because they don’t understand technology. Companies like Apple and Google challenge half the court orders they receive, because judges just don’t understand. There is frequent “parallel construction”, where evidence from spy agencies is used against suspects, sidestepping judicial review.
What Comey really means is revealed by this statement: “I hope you know that I’m a huge believer in the rule of law. … There should be no law-free zone in this country”. This a novel definition of “rule of law”, a “rule by law enforcement”, that has never been used before. It reveals what Comey really wants, a totalitarian police-state where nothing is beyond the police’s powers, where the only check on power is a weak and pliant judiciary.
Then there was that scandal that saw widespread cheating on a civil-rights test. FBI agents were required to certify, unambiguously, that nobody helped them on the test. They lied. It’s one more oath FBI agents seem not to care about.
If commitment to civil liberties was important to him, Comey would get his oath right. If commitment to rule-of-law was important, he’d get the definition right. Every single argument Comey make seeks demonstrates how little he is interested in civil liberties.
“Snowden Snowden Snowden”
Comey mentions Snowden three times, such as saying “In the wake of the Snowden disclosures, the prevailing view is that the government is sweeping up all of our communications“.
This is not true. No news article based on the Snowden document claims this. No news site claims this. None of the post-Snowden activists believe this. All the people who matter know the difference between metadata and full eavesdropping, and likewise, the difficulty the FBI has in getting at that data.
This is how we know the FBI is corrupt. They ignore our concerns that government has been collecting every phone record in the United States for 7 years without public debate, but instead pretend the issue is something stupid, like the false belief they’ve been recording all phone calls. They knock down strawman arguments instead of addressing our real concerns.
Regulate communication service providers
In his book 1984, everyone had a big screen television mounted on the wall that was two-way. Citizens couldn’t turn the TV off, because it had to be blaring government propaganda all the time. The camera was active at all time in case law enforcement needed to access it. At the time the book was written in 1934, televisions were new, and people thought two-way TVs were plausible. They weren’t at that time; it was a nonsense idea.
But then the Internet happened and now two-way TVs are a real thing. And it’s not just the TV that’s become two-way video, but also our phones. If you believe the FBI follows the “rule of law” and that the courts provide sufficient oversight, then there’s no reason to stop them going full Orwell, allowing the police to turn on your device’s camera/microphone any time they have a court order in order to eavesdrop on you. After all, as Comey says, there should be no law-free zone in this country, no place law enforcement can’t touch.
Comey pretends that all he seeks at the moment is a “regulatory or legislative fix to create a level playing field, so that all communication service providers are held to the same standard” — meaning a CALEA-style backdoor allowing eavesdropping. But here’s thing: communication is no longer a service but an app. Communication is “end-to-end”, between apps, often by different vendors, bypassing any “service provider”. There is no way to way to eavesdrop on those apps without being able to secretly turn on a device’s microphone remotely and listen in.
That’s why we crypto-activists draw the line here, at this point. Law enforcement backdoors in crypto inevitably means an Orwellian future.
There is a lot more wrong with James Comey’s speech. What I’ve focused on here were the Orwellian elements. The right to individual crypto, with no government backdoors, is the most important new human right that technology has created. Without it, the future is an Orwellian dystopia. And as proof of that, I give you James Comey’s speech, whose arguments are the very caricatures that Orwell lampooned in his books.