First, Democratic front-runner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- a candidate who has touted her tech-savvy in the past -- claimed she didn't know what "wiping" a server means. Now FBI Director James Comey, who feels comfortable enough testifying before Congress on topics like encryption, says he doesn't know what a backdoor is.
Comey, speaking about his agency's ongoing battle with Apple over getting access to a terrorist's iPhone, did his best to play dumb.
“It’s not about us trying to get a backdoor, a term that confuses me, frankly,” Comey said, according to The Washington Post. “I don’t want a door, I don’t want a window, I don’t want a sliding glass door. I would like people to comply with court orders.”
The standoff between Apple and the FBI revolves around a smartphone that belonged to Syed Farook. Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, pledged their loyalty to ISIS before going on a shooting rampage, killing 14 people and injuring another 22 in San Bernardino, California, on Dec. 2.
Farook and Malik are dead, so authorities can't sit them down in an interrogation room and ask about their motives, or how they became radicalized. But the FBI has had Farook's iPhone for several months, and although the agency often touts its technological sophistication, its agents haven't been able to defeat Apple's encryption on the device. Not yet, at least.
So, Comey approached Apple to give the FBI access to the phone. When Apple declined, federal prosecutors disingenuously told a judge the company "has the exclusive technical means" to open the phone's data to investigators.
The judge ordered Apple to help the FBI. Again, Apple declined.
As Apple CEO Tim Cook explained in a letter to iOS users, the FBI isn't asking Apple to unlock Farook's iPhone. The FBI is asking Apple to write new code to open a true backdoor that could be used to get at the contents of any iPhone.
“The FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation,” Cook wrote. “In the wrong hands, this software -- which does not exist today -- would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.”
Remember, this is the same government that said it was not using anti-terror laws to spy on its own citizens. This is the same government that tapped the phones of The Associated Press and Fox News. It's a government that denied and downplayed the scope of its surveillance programs, even as documents released by whistleblower Edward Snowden proved officials were lying. It's a government that helped itself to Americans' Google and Yahoo accounts, and even spied on gamers playing World of Warcraft and XBox Live.
Does any sane person trust our government when it says it won't use a new, made-to-order backdoor to crack phones? Do government leaders honestly think we'll trust them to delete this incredible tool immediately after Apple delivers it to them?
“The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor," Cook said. "And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”
As for Comey playing dumb about the concept of a backdoor, here's what he said in December while testifying before the Senate: "People also, I think, better understand today the government doesn't want a backdoor."
The FBI wants a backdoor, but doesn't want to call it a backdoor. Because obviously that sounds bad, and the agency doesn't want Americans thinking about what it might do with a one-size-fits-all key that can unlock iPhones. So the FBI says it's simply asking Apple to "unlock" the phone, which makes it sound like it's as trivial as resetting a password, not writing a completely new version of its operating system to give the FBI exclusive access.
And about that claim, used to get the court order, that the FBI can't defeat the iPhone's encryption? That's a bald lie. No system is perfect, as any security expert will tell you. The FBI certainly can defeat the encryption, but it will take time and resources. Why go to all that effort when you can misrepresent the situation to a Luddite judge and get a court order for Apple to comply?
Not one to give up a fight so easily, Comey tried a new tactic with an open letter he posted to national security blog Lawfare: Manipulating the emotions of Americans.
The fight with Apple, Comey said, is "about the victims and justice." He used the dead and maimed to push his point, saying he hopes people "will remember what terrorists did to innocent Americans at a San Bernardino office gathering and why the FBI simply must do all we can under the law to investigate that."
Straight out of the Bush administration fearmongering playbook.
Shame on Comey, and cheers to Apple for standing up for Americans instead of allowing the company to become an extension of the Department of Justice.