James Comey was no fan of encryption on consumer devices. But now that he's been fired as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, whoever comes next is likely to be even worse for anyone favoring a right to digital privacy and freedom from government surveillance.
President Donald Trump’s decision to show Comey the door, while nominally a result of his handling of the Clinton e-mail debacle, is widely believed to be an attempt to stall an ongoing investigation, spearheaded by Comey, into the Trump administration’s ties with Russia. If that is the case, it’s unlikely to work, argues Wired.
But regardless of the Trump’s motivations for the decision and the surfeit of potential repercussions for his political situation, one thing is clear: the FBI will need a new director. And Trump could use the opportunity to install someone with an even more militant take on encryption and privacy than Comey.
Historically, Comey has been in opposition of the widespread use of encryption. That view was aired most publicly during the Apple-FBI battle over the unlocking of an iPhone used during a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, in 2015. And more recently, at a Senate hearing, he admitted that he “could imagine a world that ends up with legislation saying: if you are going to make devices in the U.S., you figure out how to comply with court orders.”
For what it’s worth, Comey might be right. As we’ve argued, smartphones that lock away every shred of information could inhibit law enforcement far more than we really want, however unpalatable the prospect of the FBI rifling through your device is.
Of course, the long-simmering tussle between technology firms and the government about federal access to encrypted data was all but predestined to flare up again under the Trump administration. But the empty seat at the top of the FBI could now be filled by someone who is able to push Comey’s line even harder.
As Amie Stepanovich, a policy manager at a surveillance reform public-interest group called Access Now, said to Recode, Trump has “consistently appointed officials that support gross expansions of government authority at the expense of individual rights.” She added that people may be right to be “worried about who Trump is going to recommend for that position.”
Indeed, Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general, reckons that it is “critical that national security and criminal investigators be able to overcome encryption.” Meanwhile Mike Pompeo, his CIA director, has written that “the use of strong encryption in personal communications may itself be a red flag" for terrorism.
Who exactly will take the reins at the FBI remains to be seen. But their stance on encryption and surveillance is relatively easy to predict.