Cy Vance Calls It In Dumbly on Smart Phones

There are two things Cy Vance (writing with Paris’ Chief Prosecutor, the City of London Policy Commissioner, and Javier Zaragoza, Spain’s High Court) doesn’t mention in his op-ed calling for back doors in Apple and Google phones.

iPhone theft and bankster crime.

The former is a huge problem in NYC, with 8,465 iPhone thefts in 2013, which made up 18% of the grand larcenies in the city. The number came down 25% (and the crime started switching to Samsung products) last year, largely due to Apple’s implementation of a Kill Switch, but that still leaves 6,000 thefts a year — as compared to the 74 iPhones Vance says NYPD wasn’t able to access (he’s silent about how many investigations, besides the 3 he describes, that actually thwarted; Vance ignores default cloud storage completely in his op-ed). The numbers will come down still further now that Apple has made the Kill Switch (like encryption) a default setting on the iPhone 6. But there are still a lot of thefts, which can not only result in a phone being wiped and resold, but also an identity stolen. Default encryption will protect against both kinds of crime. In other words, Vance just ignores how encryption can help to prevent a crime that has been rampant in NYC in recent years.

Bankster crime is an even bigger problem in NYC, with a number of the worlds most sophisticated Transnational Crime Organizations, doing trillions of dollars of damage, headquartered in the city. These TCOs are even rolling out their very own encrypted communication system, which Elizabeth Warren fears may eliminate the last means of holding them accountable for their crimes. But Vance — one of the prosecutors that should be cracking down on this crime — not only doesn’t mention their special encrypted communication system, but he doesn’t mention their crimes at all.

There are other silences and blind spots in Vance’s op-ed, too. The example he starts with — a murder in Evanston, not any of the signees’ jurisdiction — describes two phones that couldn’t be accessed. He remains silent about the other evidence available by other means, such as via the cloud. Moreover, he assumes the evidence will be in the smart phone, which may not be the case. Moreover, it’s notable that Vance focuses on a black murder victim, because racial disparities in policing, not encryption, are often a better explanation for why murders of black men remain unsolved 2 months later. Given NYPD’s own crummy record at investigating and solving the murders of black and Latino victims, you’d think Vance might worry more about having NYPD reassign its detectives accordingly than stripping the privacy of hundreds of thousands.

Then Vance goes on to describe how much smart phone data they’re still getting.

In France, smartphone data was vital to the swift investigation of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in January, and the deadly attack on a gas facility at Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, near Lyon, in June. And on a daily basis, our agencies rely on evidence lawfully retrieved from smartphones to fight sex crimes, child abuse, cybercrime, robberies or homicides.

Again, Vance is silent about whether this data is coming off the phone itself, or off the cloud. But it is better proof that investigators are still getting the data (perhaps via the cloud storage he doesn’t want to talk about?), not that they’re being thwarted.

Like Jim Comey, Vance claims to want to have a discussion weighing the “marginal benefits of full-disk encryption and the need for local law enforcement to solve and prosecute crimes.” But his op-ed is so dishonest, so riven with obvious holes, it raises real questions about both his honesty and basic logic.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

2 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    one murder or other violent crime, however sad, terrible, grusome, or disgusting, justifies damaging phone encryption. examples like the one vance and company used are pure propaganda, appeals to emotion designed to overwhelm reason.

    neither politician cyrus vance nor politician james comey seems to understand that punishing bad guys is not, and should never be, the first priority of our style of democracy, nor the second, third, fourth. if punishing bad guys is to be your first priority then you need to look to and live in singapore where spitting you gum out on the sidewalk will land you in jail.

    it really is past time to get prosecutors out of politics entirely and ban them from running for office – same for former police officers, including especially former federal police, e.g., fbi, dea, doj. with prosecutors removed from the political waste stream that ends up in congress we would have fewer national security and jail’em forever cheerleaders and reclaim some of the freedoms congressfools have surrendered in the last 15 years.

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