The FBI has taken a strong stance on the ability of law enforcement and anti-terrorism concerns to trump individual privacy interests. Its position on requiring Apple to develop a back door through its iPhone encryption protection is just part of a larger concern about privacy advocates hampering the FBI’s ability to catch crooks and killers.
The FBI Director, James Comey, gave a speech this week at Kenyon College where he sounded many of those same themes. But then he admitted that, on his personal laptop, he’s put a piece of black tape over the camera so no one can hack into his computer and watch him. After all, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that somebody, somewhere, might want to watch you through your laptop camera — the FBI itself has developed surveillance software that apparently allows the agency to do just that.
The notion that the director of the FBI is worried about surveillance on his laptop and put some black tape over his webcam has provoked a lot of reaction on social media, from privacy advocates gleefully saying “I told you so” to paranoid anti-government types seeing Comey’s admission as evidence that the FBI, the NSA, the CIA and the other members of the alphabet soup of American security agencies routinely spy on each other. And it by pretty ironic, when you think about it — and pretty funny that the anti-surveillance tool Comey decided to use is a simple strip of duct tape.
But Comey’s reaction also is instructive, and illustrates some apparent hypocrisy. People who worry about their privacy and governmental overreach are chided for not helping to catch the bad guys and told that if they’ve done nothing wrong they’ve got nothing to worry about — but then even the FBI director takes a basic step to protect his own privacy against unwanted intrusion. He thinks he hasn’t done anything wrong, and he doesn’t like the idea of somebody spying on him. He might rationalize it as protection against hacking by a terrorist cell, or a rogue foreign government, rather than concern about surveillance by his own government, but the principle is the same. If an unhackable iPhone might “hinder law enforcement” in certain circumstances, couldn’t a strip of black tape over a laptop webcam prove to be a hindrance at some point, too?
I’m with the privacy advocates on this one — and Comey’s own actions help to say why.