FBI Director Angry At Homebuilders For Putting Up Walls That Hide Any Crimes Therein

from the wtf dept

We already wrote about how law enforcement was freaking out over the (good) news that Apple and Google were making encryption a default on both iOS and Android. Then we had a followup where a recently retired FBI guy insisted that such encryption would have meant a kidnap victim died… until everyone pointed out that the entire premise of that story was wrong and the Washington Post had to change the entire thing. We had hoped that, maybe, just maybe the misguided whining and complaining wouldn’t come from those in charge, but apparently that’s not happening.

On Thursday, FBI boss James Comey displayed not only a weak understanding of privacy and encryption, but also what the phrase “above the law” means, in slamming Apple and Google for making encryption a default:

“I am a huge believer in the rule of law, but I am also a believer that no one in this country is above the law,” Comey told reporters at FBI headquarters in Washington. “What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves above the law.”

[….]

“There will come a day — well it comes every day in this business — when it will matter a great, great deal to the lives of people of all kinds that we be able to with judicial authorization gain access to a kidnapper’s or a terrorist or a criminal’s device. I just want to make sure we have a good conversation in this country before that day comes. I’d hate to have people look at me and say, ‘Well how come you can’t save this kid,’ ‘how come you can’t do this thing.'”

First of all, nothing in what either Apple or Google is doing puts anyone “above the law.” It just says that those companies are better protecting the privacy of their users. There are lots of things that make law enforcement’s job harder that also better protect everyone’s privacy. That includes walls. If only there were no walls, it would be much easier to spot crimes being committed. And I’m sure some crimes happen behind walls that make it difficult for the FBI to track down what happened. But we don’t see James Comey claiming that homebuilders are allowing people to be “above the law” by building houses with walls.

“I get that the post-Snowden world has started an understandable pendulum swing,” he said. “What I’m worried about is, this is an indication to us as a country and as a people that, boy, maybe that pendulum swung too far.”

Wait, what? The “pendulum” hasn’t swung at all. To date, there has been no legal change in the surveillance laws post-Snowden. The pendulum is just as far over towards the extreme surveillance state as it has been since Snowden first came on the scene. This isn’t the pendulum “swinging too far.” It’s not even the pendulum swinging. This is just Apple and Google making a tiny shift to better protect privacy.

As Christopher Soghoian points out, why isn’t Comey screaming about the manufacturers of paper shredders, which similarly allow their customers to hide papers from “lawful surveillance?”

But, of course, the freaking out continues. Over in the Washington Post, there’s this bit of insanity:

?Apple will become the phone of choice for the pedophile,? said John J. Escalante, chief of detectives for Chicago?s police department. ?The average pedophile at this point is probably thinking, I?ve got to get an Apple phone.?

Um. No. That’s just ridiculous. Frankly, if pedophiles are even thinking about encryption, it’s likely that they already are using one of the many encryption products already on the market. And, again, this demonizing of encryption as if it’s only a tool of pedophiles and criminals is just ridiculous. Regular everyday people use encryption every single day. You’re using it if you visit this very website. And it’s increasingly becoming the standard, because that’s just good security.

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Comments on “FBI Director Angry At Homebuilders For Putting Up Walls That Hide Any Crimes Therein”

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93 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Has the government shut down the Catholic church yet for harboring pedophiles? Should we allow priests to have iphones?

The Vatican’s wrongdoing was not in harboring pedophiles per se, but rather in their harboring child molesters and child-rapists (as well as related wrongdoing: failure to address problems in a timely fashion; failures and refusals to compensate victims adequately; widespread denials and obfuscation, etcetera).

Mark Syman (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Agreed. People wouldn’t want their data encrypted if the U.S. gov’t wasn’t reading all of our communications trying to find incriminating information in the first place. Many people worry that their emails and phone calls criticizing gov’t policy are stored somewhere and will be used by some presidential administration to audit their tax returns or put them under some special surveillance. The general surveillance of all electronic communications that is being conducted w/o any “probable cause” for a search warrant is just wrong and unconstitutional. These are private communications and not public communications, which requires a search warrant.

I know a retired chief petty officer from the Navy, who retired about 4 years ago, who told me, before Snowden’s revelations “that all calls are recorded.” The retired Navy guy has alluded to even greater extent of the surveilance.

Geno0wl (profile) says:

Not even a decade old

Smart phone proliferation has not even reached a decade yet!
Are these people so bad at their jobs now that they forgot how to do them in less than 10 years?
What if ISIS or some other crazy group managed to actually fly a small plane above the US and put off a nuke, effectively EMPing a large part of the US? Would ALL of the FBI and CIA suddenly be absolutely 100% useless then because they don’t have computers?

alternatives() says:

Re: Not even a decade old

managed to actually fly a small plane above the US and put off a nuke, effectively EMPing a large part of the US

Then the US government should hire those people as Engineers because the altitude needed for such placement is well outside the operating envelope of a typical small plane.

Von Braun got a job after demonstrating what he could do, so its not like ‘hiring the (ex) bad guy’ would be new for the US.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Not even a decade old

“effectively EMPing a large part of the US?”

It would have to be a really huge nuke to EMP a large part of the US.

“Would ALL of the FBI and CIA suddenly be absolutely 100% useless then because they don’t have computers?”

No. The really critical CIA (and NSA, military, and I assume FBI) computers are already hardened against EMP attacks. They would not lose those systems.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Not even a decade old

No. The really critical CIA (and NSA, military, and I assume FBI) computers are already hardened against EMP attacks. They would not lose those systems.

But everyone else’s equipment would be fried. Who would they spy on? How do you set up meetings to convince people to bomb bus stops if nobody has phones any more?

Anonymous Coward says:

[FBI Director]Comey told reporters at FBI headquarters in Washington. “What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves above the law.

And what concerns me is this person’s seeming inability to recognize that one, the average citizen has reason and cause to believe law enforcement will seize any and all of their private information, and two, blocking warrantless attempts at overreach is NOT ILLEGAL.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Sure it’s not illegal, but the FBI will do their best to shout and holler about it being terrible to get people to stop doing it whilst never explicitly stating that it is illegal. The “above the law” just means “harder for the FBI to get at you if they want to (even if you have committed an actual crime)” but everybody else hears “Gosh, I don’t want to break the law! Better disable encryption.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Privacy?

Yes,

4th Ammendment
The RIGHT of the people TO BE SECURE in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

A right to be secure is not just having a right to privacy, it is also a right to not have the privacy violated by some thug with a government attachment.

DCL says:

Re: Re: Privacy?

Think of the Children (i.e Law enforcement in this case)!

Their totally reasonable thought process is that if they have a warrant that gives them the right to the data regardless of where it is.

That piece of paper totally gives them the right to crack all your passwords and get any data that you may have on some off-shore server, after all if you don’t feel safe keeping in the US then it must be something illegal you are trying to hide.

This default encryption is denying them the right to get to the data that a judge says they can look for. They MUST fight against it.

Anonymous Coward says:

“What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves above the law.”

Perhaps he should start with his own agency, and make sure that they comply with little things like warrants, and big things like police abuse of power. Being in law enforcement should not mean that they are above the law either.

Anonymous Coward says:

Of course this is what they say

“The average pedophile at this point is probably thinking, I’ve got to get an Apple phone.”

Yes, because if a pedophile gets an Apple phone, and uses it to store and track all sorts of pictures, they’ll eventually end up on iCloud, where any law enforcement official (or random hacker for that matter), can access them as needed.

This is all just sly marketing to convince bad guys that they need to get the Government’s favorite phone so they can be easily tracked.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Of course this is what they say

There’s a reason why Apple decided to encrypt all their user’s data. It’s because the government was spying on everybody’s unencrypted data without a warrant.

Sure, pedophiles are probably thinking that they need encryption. So is everybody else who’s been paying attention. People have never been upset about the government serving warrants on pedophiles. They’re upset about the government performing warrantless searches on everyone.

zip says:

x-ray proof walls?

Speaking of walls, I wonder if anyone makes a product that will make your house x-ray proof and hence prevent authorities from seeing inside? The technology to see through walls is already with us, so it would not surprise me if police departments soon start stocking up on the kind of x-ray machines that are currently being used at border crossings to see into trucks and shipping containers entering the country.

And it would be a very useful tool for police, allowing them to peer into a house and check for babies and children, for instance, instead of having the SWAT team blindly toss stun grenades into a room that might just happen to land in a baby’s crib.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: x-ray proof walls?

And it would be a very useful tool for police, allowing them to peer into a house and check for babies and children, for instance, instead of having the SWAT team blindly toss stun grenades into a room that might just happen to land in a baby’s crib.

This is the most likely reason they will avoid ever buying it. If they have it, somebody will allege that they knew or reasonably should have known they were breaking into the wrong room/house, and then the courts might actually hold them slightly accountable. As is, they can say “We didn’t know we were about to maim/kill innocent people. It looked like the right neighborhood.”

Aw, who am I kidding? “Knew or reasonably should have known they were wrong” is trumped by “officer safety.” SWAT is only held accountable when their misconduct hurts someone with the right connections.

Namram says:

Re: x-ray proof walls?

i don’t think this is realistic. you’d need to have a strong enough source of x-rays behind the object you’d want to survey. think of the role of light in photography. such a source would probably cause nasty burns to all those babies in cribs, thus preventing many potential dangerous criminals from ever reaching adulthood.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: x-ray proof walls?

“I wonder if anyone makes a product that will make your house x-ray proof and hence prevent authorities from seeing inside?”

Yes, lead foil is easily available and would do the trick. However, the devices that currently exist to look through walls don’t use X-rays, they basically use radar or microwaves (both of which would also be mitigated by lead foil).

Anonymous Coward says:

John J. Escalante is a moron

““Apple will become the phone of choice for the pedophile,” said John J. Escalante, chief of detectives for Chicago’s police department. “The average pedophile at this point is probably thinking, I’ve got to get an Apple phone.”

No, moron. The average pedophile — who is WAY smarter than you — is thinking “there is no way I should entrust my security to ANY phone, because the entire ecosystem is a disaster area”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: John J. Escalante is a moron

A lot of us who work in security have occasion to observe the scum of the earth: pedophiles, phishers, spammers, stalkers, and all other assorted bad guys. (I tend to focus on phishers, but the others are certainly on my radar.)

So after years of reading and reflection, yes, we all know a little bit about them and in particular about the methods that they use to evade detection, capture and prosecution. A lot of them are very paranoid, very smart, and very cautious. A few aren’t, and those generally fall into two categories: (a) the stupid, who end up being caught because they’re careless and (b) the patsies, who are set up by others in order to misdirect attention and to give the authorities some grist for their mill.

There are exceptions — aren’t there always? — but the average phisher et.al. probably does a better job of managing his/her data security than most people who are actually paid to do so, have titles indicating that responsibility, and hold certifications saying that they allegedly know what they’re doing. Of course they do: they’re highly motivated because there’s a big penalty for failure, whereas — as we’ve seen at Target and Home Depot and everywhere else — the consequences of even massive systemic failure are minimal and easily ducked by anyone who chooses to do so.

Kenneth Michaels (profile) says:

Former FBI Director Hosko still arguing "kidnapping"

Hosko is still promulgating the “kidnapping” story by failing to correct his opinion piece in the Bergen Record:

http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-apple-android-privacy-moves-could-be-deadly-1.1094531

Of course, the Bergen Record should also do something about this known-to-be-false story. How long will it last?

Regards

Beefcake (profile) says:

The Shit or the Pendulum

So the guy holding a job that’s subject to a constitutional framework which limits his intrusion into our lives without targeted purpose is arguing that the public for which that framework exists is the one that’s “above the law” by using a tool which supports that constitutional framework. This isn’t a pendulum swinging, it’s a fire hose of bull excrement pushing everyone onto the No-Fly list.

DCL says:

Re: Re:

That is what the Feds are afraid of… they have to have cooperation. The Feds think that a warrant means they have the right to the data no matter where it is or how it is protected. And that protecting that right should trump all other rights to you have to keep things private.

So the walls still holds up if you realize the Feds feel they have a right to have a copy of your front door key. but if they don’t have access to the door key they would feel the walls get in their way.

As the public we have seen them slide down the slope of corruption in that they continue to find ways to get data without a warrant but the feeling they have the right to get that data keeps growing because “security”.

Max S (profile) says:

can good security have benefits?

Any reasonable measure has both advantages and disadvantages. Law enforcement correctly points out that stronger encryption will bring disadvantages in that it may be difficult or impossible for them to resolve some cases.

Law enforcement, however, fails to weigh those disadvantages against the benefits from better security. What if Apple’s new measures prevent China from persecuting free-thinkers? What if they prevent Russian hackers from stealing a NATO summit’s agenda from a staffer’s HTC One? What if they prevent child pornographers from hacking into a child’s phone and stealing their photographs?

Many people (Apple included) believe that the benefits will far outweigh the disadvantages. Yes, law enforcement’s job might be a bit harder for the cases they must solve, but it appears that security could result in fewer criminal acts to begin with.

If law enforcement was able to veto every measure that enhanced user privacy, we would look a lot like China/Russia. There may be fewer child pornographers who get away with it… but at what cost?

Anonymous Coward says:

Pfff. If the FBI wants to track a target or see who they’ve been calling. They’ll simply go to the telcom companies and request records of the target’s call logs, text logs, GPS logs, and cellular grid logs.

If all else fails they’ll just remote hack the iPhone using backdoors built into hardware, device drivers, Java Card OS, or remotely re-flash the phone’s firmware.

Law enforcement has tons of options. The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), makes sure telecommunication manufacturers, who fabricate the baseband 3G/4G modems in phones, have remotely exploitable code built into the proprietary, closed source, hardware and software drivers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Apple warrant canary died

James Comey’s huffing & puffing is all security theater.

Since Apple’s warrant canary has already died, we know that Apple has already gotten an NSL, so Apple’s encryption is already backdoored.

Apple’s announcement is a *misdirection* to make people *think* that they are safe, so they don’t utilize encryption apps that actually work.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Apple warrant canary died

Since Apple’s warrant canary has already died, we know that Apple has already gotten an NSL, so Apple’s encryption is already backdoored.

Wow. That’s confusing/misreading a bunch of stories.

1. The canary was about Section 215 Patriot Act orders, not NSLs.

2. It was overreported that it died, because the new report still says no bulk orders, which is what 215 would be about.

3. You can’t backdoor encryption via a 215 order.

So, basically, no.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Apple warrant canary died

You already know better. It’s misdirection in that when federal authorities have a genuine security weakness, they DO NOT announce these to the public, lest the public at large take advantage of said weakness. This current proliferation of security claptrap is intended, AGAIN, to distract from the fact that even 100% “secure code” is WORTHLESS when used upon pre-compromised hardware layers (any connected smart-phone or pad, etc.). Plain text versions of any given communication remain accessible to federal authorities, regardless of the software used, unless you’re using PIE (pre-internet-encryption) generated on a dedicated-disconnected-device BEFORE you transfer it (via secure media) to your actively net-connected-transfer-device (your smart-phone or pad, etc.). Of course, this technique does not work for real-time chat, or real-time anything for that matter – but you can’t have everything.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Apple warrant canary died

“…unless you’re using PIE (pre-internet-encryption) generated on a dedicated-disconnected-device BEFORE you transfer it (via secure media) to your actively net-connected-transfer-device (your smart-phone or pad, etc.). Of course, this technique does not work for real-time chat, or real-time anything for that matter”

Real-time communications over dedicated-disconnected-devices is possible with JackPair. It’s a dedicated-disconnected-device that has two 3.5mm headphone jacks. Hence the name ‘JackPair’.

One 3.5mm jack plugs into the headphones/mic plug on a smartphone. The other 3.5mm jack plugs into a regular headset with a microphone.

You speak into a regular headset that’s plugged into one of Jackpair’s ports. JackPair encrypts your voice, then outputs your encrypted voice to the smartphone’s 3.5mm audio jack.

You are correct. A dedicated-disconnected-device is the only secure way to encrypt communications over untrusted hardware devices using closed-source software drivers. Such as smartphones.

https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2014/09/jackpair_encryp.html

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Apple warrant canary died

It’s misdirection in that when federal authorities have a genuine security weakness, they DO NOT announce these to the public, lest the public at large take advantage of said weakness.

In this case they’re complaining about a strength. So are you saying they’re trying reverse psychology, in hopes of getting more people to rely on the encryption because they can easily bypass it? I don’t think they’re that clever.

Jeffrey Nonken (profile) says:

A couple decades ago there was a controversy in Pennsylvania regarding concealed carry permits. (Or, hell, it could have been nationwide, I didn’t pay close attention, and my memory isn’t clear.) The media were invariably calling such a permit a “license to kill”. In fact, I think the only thing you could hear on TV for weeks was the phrase “License to kill”, just repeated over and over. Now, no matter where you stand on the second amendment, I’m pretty sure that if you’re being rational you’ll understand the difference between “legal permission to carry your weapon out of sight” and “legal permission to use your weapon to kill at whim”. But hey, let’s not let sanity or perspective get in the way of using a clever turn of phrase borrowed from your favorite spy thriller.

I don’t see that anything has changed since then. Seems like the brainless monkeys that run this country are waving their genitals around and throwing their poop more than ever.

Anonymous Coward says:

If they already cracked the encryption or a back door has been installed will it remove the benefit of a doubt for consumers/owners of encrypted devices if encryption is in use of said device. If a warrant is granted .. Thing is if there’s already a way around the encryption (hidden) could this not be damning in a court of law. just wondering if this is a bait and switch by the companies that have already sold us out in the past and our powerful three letter agencies , remember the security through obscurity angle.

Jacobson (profile) says:

Angry FBI?

So the director wants to rely on device access to be competent. Well Mr. James Corney before the Internet exist the FBI couldn’t arrest this or that criminal ou save this or that child, which means that no you do not need to have access to mine or anyones device at all. What you need to do is learn how to do a good job and how to protect yourself and others without needing someone else to do the job for you.,

Anonymous Coward says:

this is a big step along with cloudflare providing free ssl to millions of websites. The tech folks are going roll back the governments overreach. Products will be built outside of US control with a privacy from the ground up approach (zero knowledge)

You cant just spy on everyone. The tech world is not going to permit that.

Privacy is a human right enshrined in law, making a LEO’s job more convenient is not.

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s also annoying that these guys assume the encryption is only about thwarting them. I encrypt my mobile devices because 1) they’re highly portable and therefore steal-able; 2) someone with even a modicum of technical prowess can access the unencrypted data, even if they can’t actually use the device; and 3) allowing such people to access so much info about me is a Bad Thing.

So no, Mr. LEO, I’m not trying to thwart you with my encrypted phone…that’s just a side benefit.

Kalvan (profile) says:

Shredder?

There was a passing mention of the FBI et al not being seemingly afraid of shredders. There’s a reason for that.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/defense-agency-conducts-a-contest-on-reassembling-shredded-documents/2011/12/02/gIQAmEsfpO_story.html

Note, that was 2011. I’m sure the systems are faster now. Remember, first you shred, then you burn, then you stir into water and mud, then you scatter.

Anonymous Coward says:

All the buzzwords...

Terrorist, kidnapper, criminal and pedophile. Maybe it’s because it is clustered so close together in this article but whenever someone uses these buzzwords it just sounds incredibly ignorant and fake.
Is there even an article out there where they use ANY real examples instead of just the usual “top ten scariest words on google”.
Is there any debate where the two sides actually discuss the technical pros and cons to such things as encryption and surveillance? because I don’t think I ever see anything remotely like it hasn’t been thought up by an average 5’th grader from the pro side.

nicetryJSOC (profile) says:

Nobody here is mentioning the irony of what JAMES COMEY is famous for (before he became FBI chief).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Comey#NSA_domestic_wiretapping

Although Comey was a Bush Administration lackey, Comey was nominated by the Obama Administration (allegedly a Democratic president nominating a Bush crony) because Comey “refused to certify” illegal NSA wiretapping while he was in the Bush Administration.

In CIA jargon, this is known as a “legend” (cover story).

Result: Yet another Bush crony nominated to Chief a major agency/bureau/cabinet post/etc. by Obama (can we call him “Molebama” yet?).

uRspqF7L (profile) says:

great analogy

as usual, some real love for the Constitution here at the site dedicated to ending government and the .. uh, Constitution.

While you and all your commentators want to rail on and on about “unwarranted surveillance,” we still have NO–and I mean not a single ONE–example of “warrantless surveillance” leading to the prosecution of an American. Of course, any defendant with a good lawyer, and any moderately honest judge, would not let such a proceeding move forward, you can promote your radical right-wing Alex Jones views and get the script kiddies all scared.

Your analogy is wrong, plain and simple. Comey nowhere even IMPLIES–not even close–that citizens have no right to privacy and must expose themselves to constant review by law enforcement–ie, must not have “walls” to their houses. His sane, clear, message is that Apple and Google are creating mechanisms that put citizens beyond the reach of 100% legal, NECESSARY, WARRANTED law enforcement.

So what Comey is saying is, “the law says you can keep your walls and your house locked, but if the Court issues a warrant, we are going to come in.” You are saying, “a warrant doesn’t entitle you to search my premises.” Well, yes it does, even in the Constitution, even in the Bill of Rights, and if you deny that, you absolutely are saying as Comey says, that you are “above the law.”

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: great analogy

“While you and all your commentators want to rail on and on about “unwarranted surveillance,” we still have NO–and I mean not a single ONE–example of “warrantless surveillance” leading to the prosecution of an American.”

Why is this an important point? First, most of the problems with surveillance have nothing to do with prosecution. Second, thanks to parallel construction, we literally have no way to know if there were any as a result.

“Apple and Google are creating mechanisms that put citizens beyond the reach of 100% legal, NECESSARY, WARRANTED law enforcement.”

This is a straight up lie. It does no such thing. All it does is change who gets the warrant. Instead of Apple or Google, it has to be the user of the device. This brings about the state that things should have been in in the first place.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: great analogy

as usual, some real love for the Constitution here at the site dedicated to ending government and the .. uh, Constitution.

If you think Techdirt is anti-constitution, you have no idea what you’re talking about. If that’s not what you’re saying then I have no idea what you’re talking about. 🙂

Comey nowhere even IMPLIES–not even close–that citizens have no right to privacy and must expose themselves to constant review by law enforcement–ie, must not have “walls” to their houses.

What Comey is saying is that this technology is bad because it makes law enforcement’s job harder. But there are lots of things – including walls – that make law enforcement’s job harder that are perfectly acceptable. Therefore, that argument is insufficient to demonstrate that we should ban such things.

You are saying, “a warrant doesn’t entitle you to search my premises.”

No, he’s saying “just because it makes your job harder doesn’t mean it should be illegal”.

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