- - Sunday, March 6, 2016


Rahm Emanual, the mayor of Chicago, put down the folk wisdom that every successful politician tries to follow: “Never allow a good crisis to go to waste when it’s an opportunity to do things that you didn’t think were possible.” You don’t even have to be a politician to live well by practicing Hizzoner’s maxim.

The radical Islamic massacre at San Bernardino, a national tragedy, nevertheless gives President Obama and the FBI ammunition, so to speak, to persuade Congress to enact legislation to require computer and cell phone manufacturers to make and install so-called “back door” technology to enable the cops to get access to cell phones. Congress refused to do this in 2013 and 2015, and many thought this settled it. But James Comey, the director of the FBI, went back to court after San Bernardino and persuaded a judge to order Apple to develop the software to enable federal agents to access encrypted messages on one of the killer’s cell phones.

Apple said no. Mr. Comey first said that the FBI needed the software to see what might be on this one cell phone, that Apple’s fear, that developing such software would ultimately enable foreign powers and ordinary criminals access to millions of cell phones, was fear misplaced. Then the FBI said it wanted to look at the innards of a dozen phones. Skeptics argue that what the FBI really wants, and what Congress has so far refused to give them, is access to any cell phone, anywhere, any time.

The judge and the FBI are wrong. The argument that a court could or should order a private manufacturer to create a product the government wants just because it would make the government’s job easier is wrong on its face. So is the argument that no one need worry about criminals or foreign powers using the software.

Several national-security experts, including Jim Woolsey, the former director of the CIA, and Michael Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency, worry that that the FBI would compromise the privacy rights of Americans in pursuit of security. “I disagree with Jim Comey,” Mr. Hayden said in a recent speech. “I actually think end-to-end encryption is good for America.”

The FBI has one of the hardest jobs anywhere, and it has earned the gratitude of all, but it is nevertheless using the San Bernardino massacre as just the “good crisis” that Mayor Emanuel describes. Balancing privacy, freedom and security becomes more difficult as government acquires more technology. Conversations of commuters are recorded as they ride to work, cameras are omnipresent as privacy shrinks in the golden age of technology. The shrinking places where privacy still thrives are worth preserving. Congress and the courts should tell Big Brother to butt out. Private conversations should be kept private.

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