The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) made a big stink about being unable to unlock an iPhone 5C, which led to a lengthy debate over whether or not phone manufacturers should be required to include a law enforcement backdoor in their devices. According to the FBI, it was powerless to unlock the phone and because of that terrorists, child pornographers, and other heinous individuals would be able to act with impunity. It turns out that the FBI may be been exaggerating its incompetency:
Additionally, the OIG also found that when then FBI Director James Comey swore up and down in Congressional hearings that there was no alternative but to force the issue in court—it wasn’t entirely true.
“We have engaged all parts of the US government to see, does anybody have a way, short of asking Apple, to do it, with a 5C running iOS9, and we do not,” Comey told Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) during a March 1, 2016 hearing.
However, the new OIG report reveals that by February 11, the head of yet another FBI group—known as the Remote Operations Unit—had been in touch with a vendor that “he worked closely with [who] was almost 90 percent of the way toward a solution that the vendor had been working on for many months, and he asked the vendor to prioritize completion of the solution.” In short, weeks before Comey’s testimony before Congress, the FBI actually did know of a technique that was nearly all the way there.
Why would the FBI lie about something like this? One reason is that government agents, unlike private individuals, are allowed to get away with lying during hearings. But the biggest reason is probably because the FBI wanted to expand the United States government’s overall surveillance powers. A law enforcement backdoor would enhance not only the FBI’s surveillance powers but also the Drug Enforcement Agency’s, Central Intelligence Agency’s, National Security Administration’s, and basically every other federal, state, and local agency’s. Technology that allows individuals to protect their privacy is directly at odds with a government’s desire to expropriate wealth from individuals.
Nobody will likely be punished for this lie, which means that the FBI will see no reason to lie again in the future. But it’s good to keep these cases in our back pocket to remind ourselves that every time a government agency claims it needs additional powers, the reasons it feeds us are likely bullshit.