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Agency feels it's best to give up freedoms, privacy to "keep the kids safe", Apple and Google say "yea, right"

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, James Michael Cole, the Deputy Attorney General of the United States (DAG-US), last month met with high-ranking Apple, Inc. (AAPL) executives to discuss their plans to allows consumers to encrypt their personal data on their smartphones.  During the meeting he expressed strong disdain for the company's privacy protections and lofted a wild argument that his critics complained was inflammatory hyperbole.
 
I. "Won't Somebody, PLEASE Think of the Children!"
 
The report states that DAG Cole, the second highest-ranking official at the U.S. Department of Justice, claimed that children would die if Apple carried out the scheme.

James Cole
Deputy AG James Cole claims encryption will result in children dying. [Image Source: WND]

His argument reportedly boiled down to that law enforcement might be able to find details in a missing child case on a suspect's phone, but be stymied by encryption, leading to a delay in finding the child.  Such a delay, he argued could allow a child to die.
 
Apple executives weren't buying into the DOJ official's hypotheticals.  The WSJ report states:

The meeting last month ended in a standoff. Apple executives thought the dead-child scenario was inflammatory. They told the government officials law enforcement could obtain the same kind of information elsewhere, including from operators of telecommunications networks and from backup computers and other phones, according to the people who attended.

Both Apple and Google Inc. (GOOG) in recent months adopted features that allow users to fully encrypt their pictures, video, messages, and other data on their mobile device.  As mentioned above, while the data on the device is encrypted, data stored in the cloud by Apple or Google is still vulnerable to court ordered data grabs.  Likewise, data stored locally on the user's PC associated with the device may be less secure, depending on their level of encryption on that computer.

Both Apple and Google have been very cooperative with detecting and reporting child abuse material detected in their messaging and cloud storage services.  In fact, they've been so proactive that they've actually come under fire from some users who claim the companies shouldn't be inspect user data for signs of child abuse.

Android and iOS encryption
Both Apple and Google have rejected requests by the federal government to remove encryption from their consumer smartphone platforms. [Image Source: Google/Apple]

Ironically, even as some users criticize Google and Apple for "violating their privacy" by inspect the data users willingly give them, federal law enforcement agency are attacking on a polar opposite grounds, claiming Google and Apple aren't doing enough to assist law enforcement.  Thus far the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's director, James Brien Comey, Jr., has been the leading voice of criticism against smartphone encryption.
 
In a recent interview, he admitted that the FBI had abused the public's trust in the past with investigations against civil rights activists and other abusive actions.  And he admitted that his agency operates relatively non-transparently so the public has no real way of knowing if those kinds of abuses have stopped.  But he argued that the public should take the FBI's word that it's since improved.

FBI director
FBI Director James Comey claims encryption allows users to break the law.  He wants the privacy protection banned from America. [Image Source: AP]

Director Comey argued that by giving users tools to protect their privacy, American tech firms would "allow people to place themselves beyond the law."
 
Congress recently rejected Director Comey's calls for legislative action banning consumer encryption.  They said the FBI Director's requests were out of touch with reality and would allow Americans to fall victim to criminals.  The majority in both the House and Senate argued that banning encryption was overreaching and inappropriate.
 
II. 1984 In the Real World, Three Decades Later
 
This criticism was echoed by his colleague at Britain's Orwellian spy agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), recently condemned the privacy protections.  In a recent op-ed in The Financial Times (UK), he wrote:
 
[Google and Apple's smartphone platforms] have become the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals, who find their services as transformational as the rest of us.
 
The GCHQ works hand-in-hand with the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on hundreds of millions of law abiding citizens in the U.S. and Britain, saddling taxpayers with annual costs in the tens of billions of dollars to finance this unprecedented police state.  The NSA and GCHQ have reportedly worked together to sabotage encryption standards.  While that expensive effort damages both countries' national security by creating vulnerabilities that can be exploited by criminals or hostile nation states, the intelligence agencies feel it is worth it, if citizens can be stripped of protections and monitored at all times.
 
The DOJ, for its part, seemed to take a more ambiguous stance.  Departing Attorney General Eric Holder in a recent speech seemed at times to praise the American tech leaders, and at other times to come close to echoing Director Comey's stern commentary.  Behind closed doors, though, the Justice Department's comments were apparently less vague.
 
Apple and Google show little signs of budging on the issue, though.  At an October global technology conference sponsored by The Wall Street Journal, Apple CEO Timothy Cook stated:
 
Look, if law enforcement wants something, they should go to the user and get it.  It’s not for me to do that.
 
American business leaders complain that the government's overreaching surveillance efforts are damaging their reputation, particularly overseas, where many regions are boycotting American tech products due to security concerns.
 
III. AT&T Files Suit to Block "Enormous" Volume of Data Request Targeting Law-Abiding Americans
 
Even at the telecom level, there's increasing pushback, as companies like AT&T, Inc. (T) believe that mass surveillance programs are damaging consumer confidence.  AT&T on Monday filed an appeal seeking to stop the current volume of requests for customer data and phone records under the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act).

Obama spying
Under the last two presidents, the federal government has used techniques borrowed from imperialist Britain to spy on hundreds of millions of law-abiding Americans. [Image Source: Reuters]

Due to the secrecy provisions in the act, AT&T cannot say precisely how many requests it has received, but reportedly the NSA and other agencies are collecting data on hundreds of millions of Americans using PATRIOT Act general warrants issued by the FISA court.  These general warrants are a wholly new development in the American legal system, that borrow from similar provisions the imperial British used in the mid-1700s in an attempt to suppress colonial freedoms.
 
AT&T says these general warrants and the data grabs they order are poorly justified judicially using 1970s Supreme Court decision regarding landline telephones.  They say those decisions "apply poorly" to the world of modern digital communications, a world in which many more Americans are connected to communications networks and a world in which data is far easier to grab in bulk.  AT&T could only legally say that the volume of consumer request by the American federal government was "enormous".

AT&T Data Wide
[Image Source: AT&T/CNET]

AT&T's bid to block the American government from spying on millions of law-abiding citizens will be heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, Georgia.  In the meantime, the conflict will continue to play out on a different level as smartphone platform providers battle their country's government over whether Americans have the right to privacy.

Source: WSJ





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