FBI Director James Comey isn’t backing down following the Justice Department’s decision this week to drop the court case to force Apple to help crack the San Bernardino iPhone.
In a major speech at Brookings yesterday, Comey unveiled a new federal law enforcement initiative aimed at solving the “Going Dark” problem before it even begins.
“We have realized there are large groups into which we have essentially no visibility at all. The American people have asked us to do a job. That means being proactive in drawing public attention to the problems we are facing and identifying innovative law enforcement solutions. I’m calling for a national conversation. I think we can solve this problem.”
Comey expressed particular concern about surveillance failures related to a particularly tough surveillance target around the country.
In kindergartens nationwide, he said, the FBI lacks the tools it needs to do its job.
“It’s partly a technological issue; these kids aren’t using devices. So even if we get a warrant for stored communications or a wiretap, there are no stored communications, and there are no electronic communications to wiretap. They’re using a technology we just can’t penetrate: person-to-person speech, sometimes in playgrounds where agents are conspicuous, sometimes in circle time” the director told a packed audience. “A closed circle is a dangerous thing.”
The bureau is facing another problem too: “It’s partly a social issue. There are a lot of people in preschools who don’t want to cooperate with law enforcement.”
Indeed, the nation’s kindergarteners are a group widely known for resisting cooperation not just with law enforcement, but with anyone. Terrorism analyst Bruce Riedel of Brookings noted their well-known resistance tactics: sitting down, tantruming behaviors, and simply ignoring adults. "They're a real interrogation problem," Riedel says.
Comey says that he has consulted extensively with NSA about the use of its MINDPRISM program, which the agency has called “The Ultimate in Upstream Collection.” The agency bragged in one PowerPoint slide that “With MINDPRISM, we can stay one step ahead of communication itself. If the target can think it, we can collect it.” That said, Comey disclosed that experiments with MINDPRISM among children had largely failed. “I’ve heard a lot about this suggestion to just directly access toddler’s brains. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.”
As a result, Comey announced what he is calling the “Going Dark Early Intervention Initiative”: “We’ve deployed a team of 147 FBI special agents to the front line of our nation’s surveillance failures. They’re on what we call a ‘listening tour.’ Until kindergarten teachers distribute unencrypted devices to all their students--and I mean all--we just have to get in there.”
The FBI’s initiative, Comey said, has already been rolled out nationwide and includes a number of distinct programs:
“See Something, Say Something” Tattletale Training;
“Whose Mommy and Daddy read Dabiq?” Storytime;
“J. Edgar Hoover wasn’t that bad” sing-a-long; and
Warrant-based toy hacking.
Comey only alluded to this latter program, which is still largely classified, in his remarks yesterday. “We reserve the right, with appropriate warrants, to hack toys and install listening devices. And under the All Writs Act, a court has the authority to order a toy manufacturer to give us reasonable technical assistance in doing so.”
“We’re not looking for a back door here,” Comey said. “We want to go in through a recognized front door.”
Privacy advocates are not buying it. In response to Comey’s comments, the American Civil Liberties Union released pictures of an Elmo doll the organization alleged has been found at a local kindergarten. It contained what appeared to be listening devices.
“The entry point was clearly in the back,” says Jameel Jaffer, speaking on behalf of the group. “Comey can talk all he wants about front doors, but this Elmo doesn’t lie.”
Comey seems undeterred by the critics. And the FBI is already seeing some unexpected benefits from the program. According to Comey, “I’m told our agents are returning to Quantico and sharing with each other more than ever. They’ve also significantly improved in both counting and identifying colors. And they clean up after themselves more.”