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User vs. Government

Get to Know Scott Augenbaum

User vs. Government: The Irony Behind Facebook’s Stance on Privacy

I can’t tell you how many times someone would ask me if there was truth behind the assumption that the FBI can read everyone’s emails. While I could have fun scaring some people, I normally just ease their minds, and debunk this popular myth. However, it is true if there is enough probable cause to believe someone might commit a crime. To do so, many facts are submitted submitted to a judge. This is quite the labor intensive process, and is only used as a last resort when all other investigative techniques have been used first.

Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor and whistleblower, leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency in 2013 when he was a Central Intelligence Agency employee and subcontractor. He claimed that the US Intelligence Community (CIA, NSA & FBI) were all spying on US Citizens without court orders. These allegations sent shock waves across the world and caused an even greater distrust of government information requests.

In December 2015, two terrorists killed 14 people and wounded dozens more in San Bernardino, CA. The FBI wanted access to their phones to gain evidence to see if other individuals were involved in the mass killing. The murderers’ phone was recovered intact but was locked with a four-digit password and was set to eliminate all its data after ten failed password attempts. The FBI obtained a court order to gain access to the phone; however, Apple would not comply with the order, claiming this would open a pandora’s box of future overreaching actions by the government. 

Many other tech companies and others supported Apple’s stance all in the name of one’s expectation of privacy on the Internet and their personal devices. This debate played out all over the media and everyone had an opinion. Many of them were valid.

Just last week, another major debate started to heat up. Facebook announced it was going to encrypt its Messenger Service, meaning no government agencies or anyone else (even Facebook) would be able to get the contents of the message. Facebook claims they are doing this in the name of privacy so that individuals globally will have a place to promote ideas and thoughts without any fear. 

Now those individuals living under tyrannical governments will have impenetrable communication avenues for plotting and planning attacks. 

Way to go, Facebook.

So here is where the debate starts. Facebook is currently the leading source referring online child exploitation information to law enforcement. 

According to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, last year Facebook gave 16 million tips and referrals to law enforcement.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Director Wray claims if Facebook encrypts their Messenger Apps they will lose visibility into this criminal activity and evil-doers will flock to Facebook to conduct their exploitation. With Facebook owning WhatsApp (the world’s preeminent messaging platform, with 1.6 billion users monthly) and Instagram (500 million users daily) – these platforms will offer the same havens for criminals. Facebook says they will not provide a backdoor for the government to get into their system as this will undermine everything Facebook is trying to accomplish with providing privacy. So the company who has monetized lack of privacy (FB) is now reversing their stance; adamantly standing by users’ right to privacy. 

Does anyone else see the irony here?

The FBI doesn’t want endless data access for the regular Joe Schmoe. They do, however, want to be able to obtain a court order for access to criminal activity within messaging systems- if there is enough probable cause to justify it. With the news being plagued of stories from terrorist attacks, to school shootings, to child pornography and sex trafficking- there are too many crimes being committed through these avenues for it all to be under lock and key. The hardest cases I worked on while in the FBI were those that involved innocent children. Being able to access information through these websites were sometimes essential in bringing the bad guys to justice. Think of how many of THOSE criminals would still be out there, scanning for their next victims. 

It’s a frightening and taboo subject- but one that needs to be addressed in debates such as these.

This is only the beginning, and rest assured it’s going to get ugly. On one hand, nobody wants the government to make overbearing decisions that impact what business we do. However, what kind of message does this send to criminals and terrorists group who will now have free access to use these platforms without any worry? How do we balance privacy, government intervention and keeping people safe…that is the question.

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