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FBI: Actually, Don't Encrypt Your Phone After All

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

For the past few months, the government has been waging a PR campaign against enhanced phone encryption -- encryption of the type that might make it harder for government snoops to peak into your phones. When Apple announced that it wouldn't be able to break the default encryption in their new operating system, FBI Director James Comey went as far to say that children will die as a result.

Several commentators noted the irony behind Comey's histrionics. The FBI itself recommended that consumers encrypt their phones. Well, not anymore.

We've Always Been at War With Eastasia

While Comey was demanding that phone manufacturers renounce encryption -- or at least build in a backdoor and hand the government the keys -- his own agency was recommending that consumers protect their mobile devices through encryption, both in the "safety tips" contained on its website and in a press release issued in 2012.

Today, Comey claims that unbreakable encryption is "an affront to the rule of law." Yesterday, it was simply a way to safeguard your information against malware.

How could the feds reconcile this contradiction? With some quiet revisions, of course. The FBI has silently removed recommendations that you encrypt your phone from its website, Techdirt reported on Thursday. In fact, it no longer even recommends using a passcode to protect your phones, which it had previously described as a mobile device's "the first layer of physical security."

The Government's Double Plus Ungood Record on Electronic Privacy

It's understandable why Comey wouldn't want to be locked out of America's phones. The FBI has often argued that access to electronic data was essential to its operations. While the NSA has justified its prolific warrantless wiretapping of Americans' phones by reference to terrorist threats, Comey much prefers to think of the children. Being unable to break into encrypted devices would leave kidnappers and pedophiles "unseen" and, the hint is, unstoppable.

Much of the clamor for greater privacy protections, however, comes from these same agency's surveillance overreaches. Edward Snowden's leaks highlighted the NSA's expansive domestic spying program, while the FBI admitted in court that its Stingray device regularly gathers the data of passersby.

These events, coupled with worries about data breaches, hacking and identity theft, have lead consumers to demand greater privacy protections. Removing simple safety advice from the FBI's website probably isn't going to do anything to counter these trends.

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