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Ambiguous and seemingly bipolar comments in a speech by Holder leave media understandably confused

In a speech before the Global Alliance Against Child Sexual Abuse Online (GA:ACSAO), departing Attorney General Eric Holder broached the topic of mobile encryption and its effect on criminal investigations.  But rather than giving a clear perspective on his views, his seemingly contradictory remarks left the audience confused and left the media to try to decipher exactly what he was trying to say.
 
I. He Said What?
 
Holder did not mention that mobile giants Google Inc. (GOOG) and Apple, Inc. (AAPL) are being closely scrutinized given U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey recent comments.  In statements to the press last week, Director Comey claimed that encryption in mobile devices "allow[s] people to place themselves beyond the law."

Eric Holder
AG Eric Holder -- seen here during Congressional testimony about the gunwalking scandal -- is once again stirring up controversy. [Image Source: The Blaze]

In AG Holder's remarks at the GA:ACSAO, he stated:

Yet, even with the steps that have been taken – and the great work that’s underway – there’s no denying that the threat to children online still exists in every Global Alliance nation.  And difficult work remains ahead.

If we hope to end this threat and protect our children, we must seize this opportunity – here and now – to reaffirm our collective commitment to this cause, and to this vital partnership.  We must continue to work in tandem, to share insights and expertise, and to learn from one another’s successes and challenges.  And we must continue to grow more and more nimble – and strive to stay ahead of rapidly-evolving technologies – in order to reduce and eradicate the online exploitation of children.

Recent technological advances have the potential to greatly embolden online criminals, providing new methods for abusers to avoid detection.  In some cases, perpetrators are using cloud storage to cheaply and easily store tens of thousands of images and videos outside of any home or business – and to access those files from anywhere in the world.  Many take advantage of encryption and anonymizing technology to conceal contraband materials and disguise their locations.  And through unceasing innovations in mobile technology, predators are continually finding more opportunities to entice trusting minors to share explicit images of themselves.

But, he took a seemingly softer approach than Director Comey, alluding to law enforcement's sophisticated abilities to crack many forms of encryption (a key criticism of Director Comey's comments).  Such capabilities are only occasionally used (hopefully with a warrant) as they are often quite expensive computationally, but they are in law enforcement's toolkit for use in extreme cases.  AG Holder comments:

New investigative techniques are enabling us to crack the increasingly elaborate mechanisms that criminals use to mask their identities and conceal their physical locations.

He even explicitly praises industry efforts to fight child porn, including name-dropping Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) PhotoDNA enforcement technology.  He comments:

We are also stepping up our efforts to build strong partnerships with technology companies, which can be important allies in this fight.  As you heard this morning, a number of private-sector leaders have developed their own databases and methodologies, such as PhotoDNA, to identify and eliminate child sex abuse materials trafficked on their servers, and to report offending users to the appropriate law enforcement officials. 

I thank each and every one of these innovators for their outstanding work, their partnership, and their commitment to innovating alongside us.  And going forward, I am confident that these relationships will only become more critical to making the Internet a safer space for children around the world. 

Moreover, we would hope that technology companies would be willing to work with us to ensure that law enforcement retains the ability, with court-authorization, to lawfully obtain information in the course of an investigation, such as catching kidnappers and sexual predators.  It is fully possible to permit law enforcement to do its job while still adequately protecting personal privacy.

But what he said next created a bit of controversy and ambiguity in his previous remarks.  He stated:

When a child is in danger, law enforcement needs to be able to take every legally available step to quickly find and protect the child and to stop those that abuse children.  It is worrisome to see companies thwarting our ability to do so.

What makes his comments confusing is that they seemingly echo Director Comey's, who explicitly blasted Google and Apple for protecting the privacy of American citizens.  While it's certainly possible AG Holder was criticizing America's top mobile firms, it's not certain that's what he meant.  Given his prior remarks, such criticism would seem a bit odd, given that Google and Apple have both made special exemptions to turn in child predators who upload illegal images to Google Drive, Google's Gmail, or Apple's iCloud.

Android and Google encryption
Both Google and Apple recently incorporated encryption into their mobile platforms to protect users.

If he wasn't criticizing Google and Apple, his ambiguous critical remarks certainly stoked misunderstanding in the media, as Reuters is reporting "U.S. attorney general criticizes Apple, Google data encryption".  While AG Holder does not name either company in his speech, it is easy to see where Reuters might jump to that conclusion given some of his remarks.  It's indeed possible that AG Holder was referring to Google and Apple in his remarks; if he wasn't the compelling question is who exactly was he referring to.
 
II. You Never Know What Side of a Controversy You'll Find Holder On, But He's Always Nearby
 
Whatever the true story, America's top cop has found a way to stir up fresh controversy after so many past ones.  Indeed, his seemingly bipolar commentary reflects his unpredictable track record.
 
At times AG Holder has ignited controversy.  Most famously he was accused of involvement in the ATF "gunwalking" scandal (Operation Fast and the Furious).  During the operation federal agents gave guns to drug cartels in an entrapment plot.  Long story short: it backfired and most of the guns were never recovered.
 
He also defended the hypothetical legality of warrantless execution (without trial) of American citizens on American soil.  Such deathstrikes have already targeted Americans overseas with deadly accuracy (or mixed accuracy, perhaps), but have yet to occur in the U.S. where traditionally execution without trial was forbidden under the Constitution.  He argued such seemingly unconstitutional deathstrikes by military drones should only be pursued in "extreme cases" such as a credible terrorism threat, but he argued they should be left on the table.  
 
Another controversial stand was his defense of the Obama administration's mass spying programs.  These programs are actively using general warrants to target virtually every Americans' phone calls and internet traffic.  He also spent heavily on "the war on drugs", leading to record incarceration levels and great expense to U.S. taxpayers.  And his administration was caught spying on the Associated Press (AP) in an effort to ferret out leakers.

AG Holder resigns
The announcement of Eric Holder's resignation last week came as somewhat of a surprise. [Image Source: Bloomberg]

At other times, AG Holder has appeared to vigorously defend the Constitution and citizen rights.  He took a tough stand against racial profiling and other forms of discrimination.  And he wrote letters to local police departments blasting arrests of citizens who taped on-duty cops.  He argued banning the freedom to tape on-duty officers is not only unconstitutional, but also unethical.
 
Dichotomous opinions aside, AG Holder earns a place in the history books for other benchmarks, as well.  He was America's first African American attorney general.  He is one of only three remaining high-ranking members of the Obama administration's original 2008 Cabinet.  And he is America's fourth longest-serving AG.
 
AG Holder will leave office as soon as his replacement is found, likely sometime in the next couple of months.

Sources: Department of Justice, Reuters





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