Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

An Adjustment of FBI Director James Comey’s Blog Post for Candour

James Comey, writing for the Brookings Institute’s Lawfare Blog:

The San Bernardino litigation isn’t about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message. It is about the victims and justice. Fourteen people were slaughtered and many more had their lives and bodies ruined.

We absolutely intend to use a closely-watched and high-profile case to set a precedent for other times when we need to unlock an iPhone. And if you’re surprised by this, you don’t know the FBI. Even the Manhattan DA is on board.1

The particular legal issue is actually quite narrow. The relief we seek is limited and its value increasingly obsolete because the technology continues to evolve.

To our frustration, Apple and other companies continue to stand in our way and we will need their continued cooperation — that’s why they call it precedent. We threw in this comment because it would otherwise be far too obvious what we are demanding.

We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist’s passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly. That’s it.

We would like Apple to create a tool so that we can guess any passcode at any time in the future from any iPhone. And because this case is so high-profile and so clear-cut, we figured Apple would quietly and unquestioningly capitulate.

Also, why am I writing this on a blog, for heaven’s sake? Don’t we have a PR department any more?

We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land.

We would love to break everyone’s encryption. Except our own. And we’d really like it if no foreign nations could break everyone’s encryption because we live in a fantasy land where it’s possible for American intelligence agencies to be granted near-universal access to information, but other countries would be locked out.

I hope thoughtful people will take the time to understand that.

I hope nobody takes the time to understand all facets of this case.

Reflecting the context of this heart-breaking case, I hope folks will take a deep breath and stop saying the world is ending, but instead use that breath to talk to each other.

I have resorted to hyperbolic mockery because I cannot believe that anyone would question my organization’s power. This possibility simply didn’t arise in any meetings, and we are scrambling to control the narrative here, hence this hurried blog post.

Although this case is about the innocents attacked in San Bernardino, it does highlight that we have awesome new technology that creates a serious tension between two values we all treasure: privacy and safety. That tension should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living. It also should not be resolved by the FBI, which investigates for a living. It should be resolved by the American people deciding how we want to govern ourselves in a world we have never seen before.

I know as well as anyone else that encryption is a very complicated subject to grasp, and that the nuances of this case are well beyond the understanding of most people.

So I hope folks will remember what terrorists did to innocent Americans at a San Bernardino office gathering and why the FBI simply must do all we can under the law to investigate that. And in that sober spirit, I also hope all Americans will participate in the long conversation we must have about how to both embrace the technology we love and get the safety we need.

I really hope as few people as possible understand the implications of what we are asking of Apple here, because if the pushback and skepticism becomes too great, our big chance at making strong encryption illegal is fucked.


  1. ‘Charlie Rose recently interviewed Mr. Vance and asked if he would want access to all phones that were part of a criminal proceeding should the government prevail in the San Bernardino case.

    ‘Mr. Vance responded: “Absolutely right.”’ ↩︎