Oversight

The Trump Administration’s Lies About Encryption Are Putting Our Privacy in Danger

Attorney General William Barr is demanding Apple weaken its encryption — with disastrous implications for everyone’s security

Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

TThe Trump administration is now engaged in a multipronged effort to pressure tech companies to weaken encryption protecting the privacy of billions of people. And make no mistake: They are blatantly lying about it to try to get their way.

First, Trump’s Justice Department targeted WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption for messaging late last year. Now, it’s going after Apple and the encryption that prevents criminals or governments from gaining access to the data on your iPhone.

Attorney General William Barr gave a speech this week castigating Apple for “refusing” to help unlock the iPhone of a Saudi national who killed three U.S. service members in Pensacola, Florida, in late 2019. Barr declined to comment on whether he would bring legal action against the company, but Apple is quietly preparing for such a fight.

Now, the context here is important. Barr is pretending his demand to Apple is about solving a terrorism case, and that Apple is refusing any help. But Barr isn’t asking Apple to help access this one phone. Barr wants the ability to force Apple to access anyone’s phone if the government comes asking.

Apple has engineered every iPhone so that only the person who creates the phone’s passcode can open it; otherwise, all of the data is protected by encryption that even Apple can’t bypass. Apple doesn’t have that capability unless it were to reengineer its software, leaving everyone’s phone vulnerable to this same flaw.

This type of device encryption protects journalists, whistleblowers, lawyers, doctors, activists, and politicians every day (yes, even those in the Trump administration). And it is one of the few mainstream tools sold today that actually increases our privacy, rather than weakens it.

Now the Trump administration wants to do away with it.

But here’s the absolutely brazen lie: Barr is claiming that the FBI can’t get into the phone. That is flat-out false — as security experts know. The criminals in this specific case had very old iPhones, which don’t even have Apple’s most advanced encryption capabilities. As Andy Garrett, a chief executive of a forensics investigation firm, told the Wall Street Journal: “We’ve got the tools to extract data from an iPhone 5 and 7 now. Everybody does.”

Other experts were quoted by the Journal saying that several companies now exist that have the tools capable of opening even newer iPhones. The government knows this because it contracts with them. The Journal estimated that the FBI could likely obtain the data for $15,000 or less — and already has the forensic tools to do it, since it has been purchasing them for many years now.

This is the same tired “sky is falling” argument about encryption the FBI and Justice Department have been using to systematically mislead the public for years now.

Back when Obama’s FBI director, Jim Comey, made weakening encryption one of his primary crusades, he got in front of cameras and read off a slew of cases he claimed encryption would have prevented the FBI from solving. The only problem was none of it was true. News reports would quickly show that “phones had little to nothing to do with any of those stories, and if there were encryption on those phones it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference.”

Later, Comey would lead the effort in the first FBI legal case against Apple, involving the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter, a historic fight that touched off a national debate about privacy and encryption. Apple refused to reengineer its software to open the phone then too, so the FBI went to court, arguing it had exhausted all other options and it was impossible for the bureau to open the phone.

Why should the American public trust any public official on this issue, let alone William Barr?

Except that wasn’t true either. An inspector general report released after Comey had left office concluded that the FBI had misled the public the entire time. Even as they were telling the court it was impossible, they were engaging with third-party companies that could potentially break into the phone — which they eventually did.

Comey’s successor — Trump’s FBI director, Christopher Wray — has picked up right where Comey left off, both in railing against encryption and making false statements to the public about it. In 2018, Wray was caught by a Washington Post investigation repeatedly citing grossly exaggerated statistics on the number of phones he said the FBI could not unlock.

Why should the American public trust any public official on this issue, let alone William Barr?

Thankfully, no law yet prevents Apple from employing this type of encryption to protect its users, nor does any law prevent Facebook or any other company from employing end-to-end encryption on messaging services like WhatsApp. Nor should it. If anything, Apple and Facebook should not only reject the Trump administration’s demands, but vow to double down on improving the encryption services they provide so third-party companies can’t break into them either.

The Trump administration would like you to believe there is a “safe” way for Apple or Facebook to weaken the security protections offered to billions of people. Cryptographers and computer engineers are in universal agreement: There is no safe way to do this. You create a back door for one actor, and many more will rush in.

And once one country has this ability, every country will. Right-wing governments in Brazil, Russia, and Saudi Arabia will immediately send WhatsApp countless surveillance demands for communications of activists and journalists who may not toe the government line. China will line up with iPhones of minorities or political dissidents, demanding Apple help unlock them. It’s a recipe for further repression in an already repressed world — and Barr is the last person who should ever be trusted with securing this power.

Trevor Timm is the executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation. His writing has appeared the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Intercept.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store