Times have changed, along with our notions of privacy. Privacy is a cherished right, but it sometimes comes at a cost that most Americans should not be asked to pay. In rolling out its new iOS 8 operating system, Apple recently announced it will no longer unlock encrypted mobile devices for law enforcement because the devices are no longer set up to allow user passcodes to be bypassed. This move is certain to have a negative impact on law enforcement's ability to fight crime and save lives, and FBI Director James B. Comey has said it will allow criminals to be beyond the law.
It is time to unlock perceptions from the reality of an increasingly dangerous world. Tech companies, like Apple and Google, are managing public perceptions about government and private intrusions of privacy in the aftermath of NSA revelations, leaks from the "Cloud," and ever-intrusive hackers. In promoting their products, they do a public disservice because they reinforce some notion that law enforcement officials, acting with legal authority, are not to be trusted. Let's be clear about three things. First, this is about selling products. Second, law enforcement officials are American citizens just like you and me — with families, friends and neighbors who live in our communities. Third, those are the Americans we frantically call when we need help.
For a college-level terrorism class that I teach, I asked students to poll 100 people at random about whether these companies should be required to create "back doors" in their operating systems for mobile devices that would allow law enforcement access to unencrypted information pursuant to legal law enforcement requests. Sixty percent said no. Most under the age of 50 said no. Most over age of 50 said yes. Perceptions have certainly changed, and, as a nation, we need to address this shift toward distrust of law enforcement.
FBI Director Comey has been on the job for just over a year and is working to change perceptions. In addressing the myriad challenges that face our nation, he brings a positive, reasoned approach to the public discussion of privacy versus safety. While appreciating the public's concern over privacy, he has been very clear that the marketing of these new devices will seriously impede law enforcement's ability to protect Americans. Put simply, legal access to unencrypted mobile device information is needed to keep our citizens and our country safer.
Here is some FBI reality. We live in an apocalyptic, post-9/11 world, where the FBI is confronted with a dizzying array of threats from terrorist bombings to beheadings of innocent victims. Over the years, the FBI has also responded to anthrax attacks, shoe and underwear bombers, White House fence jumpers, child molesters, school shootings, human trafficking, kidnappings and massive fraud schemes. The FBI investigates these matters within the scope of the law and with great, abiding respect for the right of individuals to privacy.
Let me bring this close to home. What if your child was abducted, and the FBI developed mobile device information and had a court order, but FBI agents were unable to access the critical, time-sensitive, unencrypted information that was necessary to save your child's life? Thankfully, most people will never be in a life-or-death situation like this, but it does happen. When it does — any FBI agent can tell you from experience — people want help. Let's start by helping them now.
Public perception needs to change so the focus is on handcuffing the bad guys, not tying the hands of the good guys. Please contact your elected representatives to tell them that corrective legislation is necessary to require companies like Apple and Google to work with law enforcement and find a solution to this problem.
Ellen Glasser is president of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI and an adjunct professor at the University of North Florida. Read the story in The Baltimore Sun here.