To break or not to break

Posted: April 8th, 2016 | Columns, Congressional Watch, Featured, News | No Comments

By Andy Cohen | Congressional Watch

In late February, the FBI sued Apple to receive the company’s help in decrypting an iPhone 5c used by the couple who killed 14 people in a terror attack in San Bernardino last December. The FBI’s efforts to gain access to a password-protected and encrypted cell phone had utterly and completely failed to that point, and Apple has refused to cooperate.

It’s an incredibly touchy subject with strong arguments on both sides.

congressional_watch_sidebarLaw-and-order types insist that, in the course of a major investigation, it is imperative they be given access — provided they have a warrant — to private encrypted information. There is no guarantee that the information contained on that particular cell phone will prove valuable, but then again, it could provide a treasure trove of information on terrorist operatives and potentially prevent future attacks (the San Bernardino attackers have been linked to ISIS).

Civil liberties and privacy advocates, on the other hand, invoke the slippery slope argument, insisting that giving law enforcement agencies their requested “back door” to access private information will create a dangerous precedent, allowing unfettered access to anyone’s private information at virtually any time, with or without just cause.

To make matters worse, Apple argued, it would “green light” foreign governments, such as China and Russia, to dig into their citizens’ (or American citizens’) private data at any time, also. For if they were to provide this back door to the U.S. government, they would also have to do so for the government of any country where Apple sells their products.

Darrell Issa (R-49), who has become the go-to Republican when it comes to technology issues, used his platform at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, to discuss the issue. As founder of Directed Electronics, the car alarm company where he made his fortune, and the former chairman of the Consumer Technology Association prior to being elected to Congress in 2000, Issa is considered among Congress’ leading experts in government and technological issues.

“If the government is successful in forcing Apple to help decrypt the phone in this case, it would create a dangerous precedent that would allow the government to continue coming back again and again to decrypt all kinds of devices in all kinds of circumstances, far beyond national security,” Issa wrote in an opinion piece for Wired magazine.

Noting that law enforcement was not “ill-intentioned in their attempts to gain access to the information in this particular phone,” Issa said that a company “shouldn’t be forced to weaken the integrity of their own products and subject customers to security vulnerabilities in order to do so.”

In his own remarks to a gathering at the same SXSW festival, President Obama insisted that the issue was a complicated one and encouraged the two sides to find common ground for a solution. To those, like Issa, who believe the government should not be allowed access to private smartphones in any case, Obama said, “That, I think, does not strike the kind of balance we have lived with for 200, 300 years. It’s fetishizing our phones above every other value.”

Obama also pointed out that when they can prove probable cause to a judge, law enforcement has always been able to break physical locks, dig through your drawers and private belongings. Cell phones should be no different.

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have taken similar stances on the issue, acknowledging the complexity of the issue and refusing to take sides, instead allowing the issue to play out in the courts. (The FBI recently, however, said it believes outside sources may have found another way to access the phone without Apple’s help.)

Issa criticized the president’s remarks as “tone deaf,” and that “he did not read the room in that part of the answer,” calling the president’s approach a “detriment to privacy.”

Again, it’s a complex issue and should be treated as such.

On March 9, Susan Davis (D-53) and John Sarbanes (D-Md) held a roundtable discussion on money in politics at the Copley-Price Family YMCA in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego, where they introduced the Government By the People Act, an effort to combat the current campaign finance system that is dominated by wealthy donors and corporate interests.

The bill proposes a $25 tax credit for anyone who donates to a political candidate’s campaign, and would provide a six-to-one matching donation. This new system would compete with and help offset today’s “big money” political campaign system.

“A priority of the government should be to ensure people have a voice in elections because our nation is stronger when we’re all involved in the decision making,” Davis said. “We need to empower people and give them a role in the future of their country.”

The visiting Maryland democrat invoked local concerns in his remarks about the bill.

“Whether it’s creating good jobs, education, health care or the environment, wealthy campaign donors and well-connected Washington insiders are blocking progress on the issues that everyday people in San Diego and across the country care most about,” Sarbanes said. “We need to break Congress’ reliance on big-money donors so that we can return to a government of, by, and for the people.”

Juan Vargas (D-51) continued his push to secure the $248 million pledged in President Obama’s 2017 budget to complete phase two of the Calexico Land Port of Entry and expansion project. Funds for phase one were included in the 2014 budget. A similar project to expand the San Ysidro border crossing has received full $735 million in funding for all three phases through 2019.

Duncan Hunter (R-50) continued his crusade to oppose the Pentagon’s policies regarding women in combat. According to the Daily Caller, women have no idea what they’re in for because this generation has never seen “real” war. Counterinsurgency efforts don’t count, he said.

“Big war will happen again,” Hunter said. “I’m telling you, you have not seen real war unless you’ve seen ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ And when that day of total war comes, women will not be up to the challenge.”

—Andy Cohen is a local freelance writer. Reach him at

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