FBI Director James Comey gave a speech this week about encryption and privacy, repeating his argument that "absolute privacy" hampers law enforcement. But it was an offhand remark during the Q&A session at Kenyon College that caught the attention of privacy activists:
The thought of the FBI chief taping over his webcam is an arresting one for many.
His comment Wednesday (which is around the 1:34:45 mark in this video) was in response to a question about growing public awareness of the ways technology can spy on people, and he acknowledged sharing in the surveillance anxiety.
"I saw something in the news, so I copied it. I put a piece of tape — I have obviously a laptop, personal laptop — I put a piece of tape over the camera. Because I saw somebody smarter than I am had a piece of tape over their camera."
It's certainly not unreasonable to worry about webcams, especially for someone as high-profile as Comey. The FBI itself has used malware to hack into cameras to spy on targets.
For privacy activists, the real problem is what they see as Comey's hypocrisy. He says tech companies shouldn't make devices that are "unhackable" to law enforcement (the fight over the San Bernardino iPhone 5C being the major case in point), but the activists say that's exactly what he's done with his personal webcam.
Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist and a senior policy analyst with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, accused Comey of having a double standard for his own privacy:
He piled on with a little Twitter sarcasm:
It's worth noting that Comey made the webcam remark in the context of a larger comment about the need for the public to keep an eye on how government uses its surveillance powers. "[The public should] demand to know how the government conducts surveillance. Demand to know how they're overseen, how they're constrained. Demand to know how these devices work," he said.
But as the San Bernardino iPhone fight made clear, the privacy debate in the U.S. is no longer just about legal processes and judicial oversight. It's about whether unhackable devices should be allowed to exist, warrant or no warrant. And a taped-over webcam is about as unhackable as a device can get.