By Jonah Bennett
During a Wednesday speech on privacy at Kenyon College, FBI Director James Comey said he’s anxious enough about the prospect of covert surveillance that he places tape over his computer’s webcam.
Sometimes ridiculed as a hokey and bizarre privacy measure for the overly paranoid, the tape-over-the-webcam tactic has gained Comey as an adherent, which has caused many to pay attention to the discussion, NPR reports.
“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,” Comey said. “Because I saw somebody smarter than I am had a piece of tape over their camera.”
The subject of his talk at Kenyon more generally was about privacy and encryption. Comey’s argument is that an obsession with privacy hurts law enforcement efforts, but he also mentioned he understands why people are taking measures to protect themselves. In fact, he does exactly the same.
And Comey is well aware of how the technology works, since even the FBI is known for developing and deploying malware that can covertly switch on a computer’s webcam remotely. It isn’t just hackers who have this sort of technology.
For some privacy advocates, Comey’s tape measure is awfully hypocritical. On the one hand, the FBI demands that software companies engineer devices so federal government can gain access. On the other hand, Comey is placing tape over his webcam, which renders it useless, were law enforcement to remotely deploy malware to turn it on without his knowledge.
Christopher Soghoian, policy analyst at the ACLU, mocked Comey’s speech by tweeting, “FBI Director Comey has created a ‘warrant-proof webcam’ that will thwart lawful surveillance should he ever be investigated. Shame on him.”
Discussion on the role of privacy in relation to law enforcement activities has again crept into public life because of the FBI’s request that Apple help it break into the iPhone 5c of San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook. Although the FBI ended up gaining access to the phone via help from a third-party instead of forcing Apple to cooperate, this turn of events has in fact spurred even more worries from privacy advocates.
Comey tried to dampen those worries during his speech.
“[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.