William Barr would like the government to be able to break into your phone


Attorney General William Barr gave a speech calling for tech companies to give the government a 'backdoor' into all encrypted communications.

Attorney General William Barr is very worried that he won't be able to access your private communications — so much so that he wants technology companies to give his Justice Department a backdoor for law enforcement.

Barr made remarks at a cybersecurity conference on Tuesday complaining that law enforcement is "increasingly unable" to get at information stored on electronic devices, such as phones, or to access information as it travels between devices even if there is a criminal warrant.

What Barr wants is for technology companies, such as Facebook, to agree to give law enforcement sort of a permanent "backdoor" by which law enforcement can break the encryption present on cell phones and other technology. Most major communication apps, including Facebook and WhatsApp, build in a level of encryption so that an outside observer of your data will see nothing but scrambled nonsense if they try to look at your phone. Major hardware manufacturers such as Apple build in encryption as well.

Barr raised the specter of international terrorism to the audience — composed mainly of law enforcement officials who likely already agree with him — by talking about a transnational drug cartel's use of WhatsApp group chat to evade law detection while coordinating the murders of Mexico-based police officers.

While that use of WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, is undoubtedly awful, it's a bit rich for Barr to complain about that specific app. After all, he works for an administration where the use of WhatsApp is sanctioned. Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, uses it to communicate with foreign leaders, even though he breaks presidential records retention rules when he does, as WhatsApp leaves no history of communications. (Ludicrously, Kushner contends he takes screenshots of all his communications to comply with the retention rules.)

There's also the issue that technology companies have pointed out: Any backdoor they create for the government will be easily "discovered and exploited by bad actors." In other words, if Facebook gives the DOJ a way to make an end run around Facebook's built-in encryption scheme, other people will figure out that method as well.

Also, right now our government can be said to be one of the bad actors. The government is ignoring the real threat of domestic right-wing terrorism. Worse still, the government is led by Trump, who not only embraces right-wing vitriol but sees it as the ticket to his reelection.

Trump also doesn't care about cybersecurity privacy violations when it benefits him. He gleefully called for the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton's emails and has routinely ignored attempts by Russia to penetrate American election systems.

Believing that the attorney general has the best interest of all Americans at heart is honestly too much of a stretch.

Or, as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) explained on the Senate floor, Barr wants to "blow a hole" in a necessary security feature that keeps all sorts of data, such as health records, private. Wyden also worries that Barr and Trump would abuse the power to crack encryption.

Catching terrorists before they act, or figuring out their motives and associates after they do, is a laudable goal for the government. However, there's no proof at all that this administration would limit themselves to the laudable goal. Putting such a powerful tool — the ability to access anyone's private, encrypted data if the DOJ says they need it — in the hands of the Trump administration is a bridge much too far.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.