- - Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Obama administration officials seem to think the Constitution gives the government a license to snoop on whomever it pleases, whenever it pleases. The founding document does no such thing, of course, but Congress cannot summon the courage to restrain the executive branch, and the judiciary shows little interest in restraining abuse. That leaves it to the people, through technology, to enforce the inherent right of Americans to be left alone.

In the latest version of Apple’s iPhone, encryption software scrambles content stored on the device in such a way that, unless the correct password is entered, unauthorized eyes can’t browse through the emails, text messages, photographs and contacts stored on the device. Google has announced similar security features coming for Android smartphones.

This sounds better than it is. Apple and Google deserve a little applause, but their timid technology puts only a small hurdle in the way of someone looking to break open a cellphone. A typical four-digit access code represents 10,000 possible combinations. A man might numb his fingers typing so many codes into the phone, but a computer can breeze through the permutations in minutes. It’s a level of deterrence that would prevent a police officer from unlocking a suspect’s cellphone during a traffic stop, but it wouldn’t stump an ordinary computer lab technician. The lawman with ordinary skill must get a warrant, which is as it should be.

This is too much to ask of FBI Director James B. Comey. In a speech to the Brookings Institution, he doubled down on his desire to go through everybody’s data. “I want people to understand that law enforcement needs to be able to access communications and information to bring people to justice.” He denounced corporate encryption efforts, saying, without a hint of irony: “The place they are leading us is one we shouldn’t go to without careful thought and debate as a country.”

The federal government’s snooping, led by the FBI and the National Security Agency, are the longest arms of the law. There has been no “debate as a country.” The head of the NSA lied to Congress (and the people) about it, and these agencies cannot be trusted now. If the backlash against federal snooping curtails legitimate law enforcement efforts, Mr. Comey has only himself and his colleagues in the intelligence agencies to blame. They should have thought twice or even three times before acting once.

Mr. Comey argues that criminals will now be “going dark,” covering their trail with encryption, free to wreak mayhem on innocents. He wants Congress or President Obama to prohibit this technology with a “regulatory or legislative fix to create a level playing field.” It’s as though he advocates outlawing safes and door locks lest a crook hide his loot. Should the government have a master key that opens all doors?

Without that digital master key to open all electronic doors, Mr. Comey says America will no longer be “a country governed by the rule of law.” But he has it backward. Surveillance pursuant to dubious general warrants is what undermines the rule of law. The threat by a handful of miscreants doesn’t turn America’s 160 million cellphone users into criminals, subject to having their data swept up in the federal government’s electronic dragnet.

Apple and Google should redouble their efforts to block the overreaching snoopery. Technology has become a reliable safeguard of the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unlawful search and seizure.

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