As I was graduating high school, when classmates asked me to sign their yearbooks, I sometimes wasn’t quite sure what to write. It was a limbo period for us — high school not quite over and life beyond not yet begun. So, often I would try my hand at a limerick. Don’t ask me why but I liked the strict form, the brevity, the rhyming exercise. Even now, I will write limericks to my kids on their birthday cards. This is as far as any poetry skills extend. Anyway I thought this week — while we are in a sort of limbo between House and Senate proceedings — I would convey my thoughts via limerick for a change:
There once was a steely House Speaker
Who wouldn’t let anyone tweak her
She delayed a while
This historic trial
To make her hand stronger, not weaker
Keep your hopes for the trial in check
Expect unseemly drama and dreck
Will witnesses show?
How low will Mitch go?
In the end, it’s a fully stacked deck
When impeachment and trial are done
Everybody will question who won
For laws that he breached
There’s no victory, no, there is none
And one thing please always remember
Our nation is no dying ember
The fire burns strong
And it won’t be long
Til change on the third of November
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ENCRYPTION: FRIEND OR FOE?
On Monday, Attorney General Bill Barr publicly called on Apple to help the FBI access two locked phones used by the gunman in last month’s shooting at a naval base in Pensacola, Fla. Barr’s unusually pointed request to Apple has reignited the national debate over encryption, and specifically, the question of the proper balance between the dual interests of privacy and national security. Should technology companies be able to make “warrant-proof” devices that are effectively impenetrable by law enforcement?
In a press conference, Barr declared the Pensacola shooting an “act of terrorism” and criticized Apple for failing to provide “any substantive assistance” in the DOJ’s investigation of the gunman. “This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that investigators be able to get access to digital evidence once they have obtained a court order based on probable cause,” the Attorney General said.
On Tuesday, President Trump weighed in somewhat less subtly, tweeting:
Law enforcement officials have long argued that encryption limits their ability to lawfully confront serious national security threats. As early as 2014, former FBI Director Jim Comey was publicly calling on technology companies to assist the government in overcoming the problem of encryption, which he labeled “Going Dark.” Comey’s rhetoric grew more pointed in the wake of the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, CA., when the FBI unsuccessfully sought to pressure Apple to help the government access the perpetrators’ encrypted digital information.
While there is currently no federal law that directly addresses the issue of access to encrypted devices, the government has traditionally relied on a statute from 1789 called the All Writs Act, which gives judges the power to compel third parties to execute court orders. In a 1985 decision, the Supreme Court held that the Act “is a residual source of authority to issue writs that are not otherwise covered by statute,” essentially establishing the Act as a sort of catch-all statute.
Technology companies have argued that complying with law enforcement’s data requests would be akin to creating a “backdoor” that could be exploited by hackers, foreign adversaries and other nefarious actors. In 2016, Apple CEO Tim Cook called the FBI’s specific request “the software equivalent of cancer.” In response to Barr’s latest appeal, Apple said in a statement on Monday:
We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys. Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers. Today, law enforcement has access to more data than ever before in history, so Americans do not have to choose between weakening encryption and solving investigations. We feel strongly encryption is vital to protecting our country and our users’ data.
This latest encryption episode is likely to revive attempts to resolve the issue legislatively, though there is hardly a political consensus around the best path forward. In 2016, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Richard Burr (R-NC) drafted a bill called the Compliance with Court Orders Act of 2016, which would force technology companies to comply with law enforcement’s data requests. The bill encountered pushback from privacy advocates and failed to receive a vote in the Senate. The encryption debate remains unsettled.
Are technology companies right to resist government pressure to unlock encrypted devices? Or is the world too dangerous for devices to be “warrant-proof”? Let us know what you think by writing to us at [email protected] or reply to this email.
THIS WEEK ON STAY TUNED
J. Ann Selzer is this week’s guest on Stay Tuned. The president of polling firm Selzer & Company, she has overseen the vaunted Des Moines Register Iowa poll almost every year since 1987. She gives Preet a debrief of her latest Iowa Democratic Caucuses poll, reflects on the charged 2016 Iowa caucuses, and speaks about her method of “polling forward”:
There are probably plenty of other polling operations that apply what they think is a far more rigorous scientific method, for example, in how they decided what a likely voter is going to be. And they will have run regression equations and done all sorts of fancy math to say, ‘We know that if you have voted before, you know where your precinct is, and you’re showing high interest, then you’re a more likely voter’…That is what I call polling backwards…So it would look on paper like that’s a pretty good idea—the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. But the Selzer caveat is: ‘Unless there’s change,’ in which case you’re blinded from what’s happening ahead of you. So my method is to let my data tell me what’s going to happen at a future date.
For thoughtful, dogged reporting on cybersecurity and intelligence issues, follow the Wall Street Journal’s Dustin Volz (@dnvolz).
And, if you are not following her already, Recode founder Kara Swisher (@karaswisher) is an authority on all things tech.
THIS WEEK ON CAFE INSIDER
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—The CAFE Team: Tamara Sepper, Sam Ozer-Staton, Julia Doyle, Calvin Lord, David Kurlander, David Tatasciore, and Matthew Billy.