The FBI Director And His Webcam

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.

hqdefaultThe 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.

Deniability And Accountability

The latest surprising American surveillance story has to do with the amount of spying the National Security Agency is doing overseas — and who is the target of the spying.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel is one of a number of foreign leaders whose phones were wiretapped by the NSA.

The NSA now says that President Obama wasn’t aware of the wiretapping of Merkel’s phone or those of other foreign leaders and stopped the practice this past summer when NSA surveillance programs were reviewed after Edward Snowden’s leaks.  The NSA says the President doesn’t sign off on such programs — basically because there are so many spying programs the NSA doesn’t even advise the President of all of them.

There are reports to the contrary, which assert that President Obama in fact was aware of the wiretapping programs and didn’t stop them.  But let’s assume for the moment that the denials of President Obama’s knowledge of the programs are true.  Doesn’t that tell us something even more damning about our spy programs?  It’s fair to assume that foreign leaders would be upset about America tapping their phones if they ever learned of the practice — to the point where it might imperil our relationships with our allies.  Given that risk, wouldn’t it be prudent to get clearance for such programs at the very highest levels?  If President Obama wasn’t regularly advised of such programs and making the decisions about whether to continue them, who was?

We’ve got a surveillance community in this country that has an insatiable appetite for more information and that appears to be accountable to no one.  Congress and the President need to address this issue and bring our intelligence community back under meaningful civilian control.  Otherwise, we are going to be in for more leaks, more embarrassment, more difficult conversations with angry foreign leaders, and more credibility problems for the American government.