If there was ever any doubt about the stance of the FBI on personal privacy, there certainly isn’t now after a speech this week by FBI Director James Comey. Remarkably he used the speech, made to the American Bar Association, to argue that US citizens have “never had absolute privacy”.
This apparently justifies the level of intrusion Comey and the FBI are seeking to have into the personal communications of pretty much anyone who piques their interest. And what’s more, he rather ominously noted that he was gathering information to support his arguments, which he plans to use to lobby politicians once election season is done and dusted.
His speech began with anecdote designed to make him seem sympathetic to those who campaign against excessive powers being handed to the intelligence agencies. He claimed that in a prime spot on his desk is a copy of the wiretap request for Martin Luther King, which was sent by one of his predecessors to the US Attorney General in the 1960’s.
This request had no limitations of time and place and no oversight of any kind, and was justified by claiming that his movement had a ‘communist influence’. Comey said that this document serves as a constant reminder to him of the risks of the FBI wielding almost unlimited powers.
After humanizing himself in this manner, he was swiftly back on his favourite topic, namely the FBI’s inability to break into encrypted communications.
He claimed that in the first 10 months of last financial year the FBI was handed 10,000 mobile devices by law enforcement across the USA. Of those, it was unable to access 650. “They’re a brick to us,” he moaned. “Those are cases unmade, evidence unfound.”
There was no specific argument for backdoor access to encrypted devices and communications on this occasion, but rather a plea to the lawyers in attendance that this was a problem they needed to address.
It was at this point that the astonishing claim that American’s have never enjoyed real privacy was made.
“Cars, safe deposit boxes, our apartments, our houses, even the contents of our minds—any one of us, in appropriate circumstances, can be compelled to say what we saw. We have never lived with large swaths of our life off limits, where judicial authority is ineffective.”
It is a remarkable statement from the man at the head of an organization whose sole purpose is to defend the rights and freedoms of American citizens.
But the next speaker onstage, Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), was quick to put Comey’s claim into context. Rotenberg first noted that the 650 figure used by Comey was different to an earlier speech when he claimed the number was 500.
But rather than dwell on this inconsistency, he instead pointed out that in 2013, there were 3.1 million cell phones stolen in the USA. His point was that to compromise encryption in order to allow the FBI to access a few hundred phones would put the data and devices of many millions of US citizens at risk.
He then went on to dismiss the claim that there has never been absolute privacy in the USA. He used just two examples to highlight the fallibility of this claim; the 5th Amendment, which gives citizens the right not to testify against themselves; and attorney-client privilege.
Comey undermines his case by making such ill-advised and easily decried comments. But his words illustrate the disregard which he and his organization still have for the privacy rights of individual citizens.
It is for precisely this reason that so many Americans are concerned about their online privacy and taking steps, such as using a VPN, to protect it. And in a speech which Comey clearly intended to undo some of the damage the FBI has caused themselves over this issue, he seems to have only made matters worse.