Category Archives: Police state

FBI director James Comey thinks FBI’s own online safety tips should be illegal

originally published in ConsumerAffairs

Q: What does FBI director James Comey have in common with your average computer hacker?

A: They both really, really hate the idea of secure encrypted data.

When Apple launched its iPhone 6 in September, it bragged about the phone’s strong security features, including automatic data encryption. Which made Comey, who’s been the FBI director since September 2013, predict that encrypted communications could lead to a “very dark place” and criticize “companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law” — as opposed to, say, “Marketing something expressly so people know hackers can’t steal photographs and other personal data off their phones.”

On the contrary. According to Comey, the people most likely to benefit by encrypted phones include kidnappers, terrorists and pedophiles: “The notion that people have devices… that with court orders, based on a showing of probable cause in a case involving kidnapping or child exploitation or terrorism, we could never open that phone? My sense is that we’ve gone too far when we’ve gone there,” Comey said in a televised interview.

Which does indeed sound terrible, except that (as CNN’s Jose Pagliery pointed out) it’s not true. Even with encryption, police and the FBI can still get data off your phone —they just can’t do it without your knowledge:

The FBI can still get your phone data. Now, they can’t do it secretly by going to Apple or Google. Agents must knock on your front door with a warrant in hand — the way it’s always been.

If you don’t give the FBI access to your phone, it can ask a federal judge to force you. If you refuse, the government can throw you in jail and hold you in contempt of court.

Make it illegal

Pagliery also pointed out a rather more obvious problem: if data remains unencrypted, thus granting government the ability to remotely get it without your knowledge, that means hackers also have the ability to get your data without your knowledge.

Despite this, Comey has gone so far as to suggest Congress make data encryption illegal, via rewriting the 20-year-old Communications Assistance in Law Enforcement Act to make it cover apps and other technologies which didn’t exist back in 1994.

Specifically: since CALEA requires telecom companies to give police access to communications, Comey thinks CALEA should also apply to, for example, the new iPhone 6 – except that, if the phone is encrypted, Apple itself can’t get the data on it, and therefore can’t hand it over to law enforcement. Only if the data remains unencrypted can Apple or any other phone provider (or a clever hacker) take data off it and give it to police (or an identity thief) without your knowledge.

Easier for hackers

In light of Comey’s remarks, it seems safe to say “The FBI, at least under James Comey’s aegis, wants all of your private communications and data to stay at risk of being hacked, since that will also make it easier for tech companies and the government to look at that data without your knowing about it.”

But the FBI didn’t always have this attitude. On October 12, 2012 – almost exactly two years before Comey’s ominous grumblings about the “very dark place” encryption will surely lead us – the FBI’s “New E-Scams and Warnings” website published an article warning “Smartphone Users Should be Aware of Malware Targeting Mobile Devices and Safety Measures to Help Avoid Compromise,” including a bullet-pointed list of “Safety tips to protect your mobile device.” And the second tip on the list says this: “Depending on the type of phone, the operating system may have encryption available. This can be used to protect the user’s personal data in the case of loss or theft.”

But James Comey doesn’t like it, because it also means that if the police, FBI, NSA or any other government authority wants to read that personal data, they’ll need to visit a judge, get a search warrant and physically take possession of the phone. And so, two years after the FBI shared this anti-hacker safety technique with the American people, the FBI director wants Congress to make it illegal.

Apple’s “warrant canary” died; did Patriot Act spy activities kill it?

originally published on ConsumerAffairs

Photo: Library of Congress

There’s possible bad news for privacy advocates and Apple customers alike: a sharp-eyed look at Apple’s two most recent Transparency Reports (more specifically, what’s not in them) suggests that, despite the company’s recent announcements affirming its strong commitment to protecting customers’ privacy, it might have been forced to secretly spy on people

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Face Crimes

originally published in the Hartford Advocate

Let’s play “Name That Background Noise,” where the Advocate lists the sounds of a given location and you guess where it is. Ready? Here goes: “Take off your jacket and shoes. I’m confiscating your shampoo because it’s in a four-ounce bottle and any bottle bigger than three ounces is a terrorist threat. Seriously, that’s … Continue Reading

How the ‘war on drugs’ can kill

Originally published in The Guardian

In America there are plenty of scare stories about the “obesity epidemic”, which is caused by too many Yanks eating too much junk food, and does bad things to public-health statistics. Clearly this obesity problem needs solving, and here’s how: poison the nation’s sugar and fat supply so anyone who eats too much will immediately

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Welcome to kidulthood

Originally published in The Guardian

We Americans call our nation the “land of the free and home of the brave,” but that’s not true anymore. Freedom is for adults, and childhood in this country isn’t a temporary condition but a permanent state.

When I was a kid, and probably you too, grownups had certain things that were forbidden to us.

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Lost freedoms are not to be sneezed at

Originally published in The Guardian

I hope I don’t get arrested. I surely won’t this evening but a few days hence that might change, if the authorities take undue interest in my household here in the US, the Land of the Free.

There’s sickness here, and has been all week – an annoying cold virus bouncing twixt me and my

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US cops: armed and dangerous?

Originally published in The Guardian

When Americans read British newspapers referencing “her Majesty”, “his Highness” or “Lord So-and-So”, we bask in the smug patriotic pride of knowing ours is no nation of aristocrats, but a country based on principles like equality before the law and authority granted by merit.

So we’re told. Yet we do have de facto aristocrats, whose … Continue Reading

Webcamgate case resolved. Badly

Originally published in The Guardian

There’s a science fiction trope where aliens do something their unearthly mindset considers virtuous, but anyone with normal human emotions finds horrifying: “Smile, Earthlings! When we release our genetically engineered virus, you’ll only be troubled by the mating urge once per season – hey, why are you stopping us?” So, if someone says to a

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School webcam spies in land of liberty?

Originally published in The Guardian

First, the good news: even in these troubled economic times, there exist American public schools – like those of the Lower Merion district in the suburbs of Philadelphia – prosperous enough to distribute laptop computers to every kid enrolled in the high school.

Now the bad news: school officials could also afford to install webcams

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A patriotic duty: repeal the Patriot Act

Originally published in The Guardian

The first thing you need to understand about the Patriot Act is this: Osama Bin Laden’s destruction of the World Trade Centre wasn’t the reason the act was passed; it was merely the excuse. The real reason dates back to the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan demonstrated his principled commitment to personal liberty and small

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The TSA’s mission creep is making the US a police state

Originally published in The Guardian

Ever since 2010, when the Transportation Security Administration started requiring that travelers in American airports submit to sexually intrusive gropings based on the apparent anti-terrorism principle that “If we can’t feel your nipples, they must be a bomb”, the agency’s craven apologists have shouted down all constitutional or human rights objections with the mantra “If

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Safe At Last From Teen Terrorists At Taco Bell

originally published in the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press

People of America, rejoice! I passed my Homeland Security check with flying colors, which means you can safely read my articles without worrying that you’re endangering the security of the homeland or anything.

I’m serious. When I started working for this paper full-time, I expected the HR lady to hand … Continue Reading

Billing for the Billets

originally published in the Hartford Advocate

Billing For The Billets

In Connecticut, when you get out of jail, you may get a bill from the state for your room and board

By Jennifer Abel

A few years ago the Chinese government made a great humanitarian leap forward by outfitting “death vans” with lethal-injection tools and then driving through the countryside … Continue Reading

Unleashing police gunmen on students: America’s hot new educational fad

Originally published in

IF you missed last week’s “mad gunman terrorizes American schoolchildren” news story, this time out of North Carolina, don’t feel bad; these days they’re common enough that it’s not reasonable to expect any one person can keep up with them all.

Still, last week’s story was notable for two reasons: One, nobody actually got shot; and … Continue Reading