Former CIA Agent Barry Eisler w/ DemocracyNow!
coderman at gmail.com
Fri Feb 26 05:33:30 PST 2016
Will FBI Take a Bite Out of Apple? Former CIA Agent on Showdown
Between Apple & U.S. Government
February 25, 2016
As the government continues to take a bite out of Apple, Apple CEO Tim
Cook says the FBI’s request to unlock the iPhone of one of the San
Bernardino shooters is the "software equivalent of cancer." In an
interview on ABC, he explained why the tech giant is resisting a court
order to help unlock the phone. The FBI says Apple is overstating the
security risk to its devices, and argues the litigation is limited.
"It won’t be unique to this one phone. It would be something that the
government can use against any phone. And even if you think that it’s
OK for the government to be able to break the encryption of anybody’s
phone … what backdoor is accessible to the U.S. government would also
be accessible to whatever is the American enemy du jour," says our
guest Barry Eisler, who has written about government surveillance in
fictional form. He is also a former CIA agent. Eisler is the author of
several books, most recently, "The God’s Eye View."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the ongoing dispute over privacy and
encryption between the FBI and the computer giant Apple. In an
interview last night on ABC, Apple CEO Tim Cook explained why his
company is resisting a court order to help unlock the iPhone of one of
the San Bernardino attackers. In December, Syed Farook—Syed Rizwan
Farook and his wife killed 14 people and injured 22 others. The two
attackers were killed in a shootout with police. Cook said what the
U.S. government was asking Apple to do was the, quote, "software
equivalent of cancer."
TIM COOK: This case is not about one phone. This case is about the
future. What is at stake here is: Can the government compel Apple to
write software that we believe would make hundreds of millions of
customers vulnerable around the world, including in the U.S.? The only
way we know would be to write a piece of software that we view as sort
of the software equivalent of cancer. We think it’s bad news to write.
We would never write it. We have never written it. And that is what is
at stake here.
AMY GOODMAN: The FBI says Apple is overstating the security risk to
its devices, and argues the litigation is limited. In an open letter
earlier this week, FBI Director James Comey wrote, quote, "The
particular legal issue is actually quite narrow. ... We don’t want to
break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land," he
said. Apple phone systems have a function that automatically erases
the access key and renders the phone permanently inaccessible after 10
To talk more about the case, we’re joined by Barry Eisler, who has
written about government surveillance—in fictional form. But he’s also
a former CIA agent. Eisler is the author of a number of books, most
recently, The God’s Eye View.
It’s great to have you with us.
BARRY EISLER: Thank you, Amy. Good to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about what the government is doing and the
pushback of Apple.
BARRY EISLER: Yeah, I like Tim Cook’s metaphor. It’s nice to see
someone hitting back linguistically this way. You would expect the FBI
to say what it’s saying: It’s only about one phone. This is the kind
of thing the government always says. And I’m reminded of the time the
CIA acknowledged that it had made two torture tapes. Fifteen months
later, it acknowledged that it was in fact 92. In this case, the
government said this is only going to be about one phone, and it took
them only a day to say, "Did we say one phone? Actually, we’re talking
about 12." If you talk to any encryption or security expert anywhere,
they’ll all tell you that what the FBI is asking for is impossible.
You can’t create a backdoor for one phone without making all phones
vulnerable. So that’s one important issue here.
But there’s another one that I think is not adequately understood. As
Julian Sanchez, a guy I follow pretty closely because he knows a lot
about these things, works with the Cato Institute, put it, this just
isn’t about encryption, it’s about conscription. And I wish people
would understand this a little bit better. It’s unprecedented for the
government to be telling a private company what products it can create
and what features it has to include in those products. As Tim Cook
pointed out, where does this stop? What if the government said, "We
want to have a feature on the iPhone that enables the FBI to turn on
the iPhone camera, to turn on the iPhone microphone, anytime we want?
Would that also be OK?" So, I hope this isn’t going to happen. It’s
sort of odd have to be championing the world’s richest corporation in
its fight with the government.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, they’re asking the Apple to write a program,
which would then create a backdoor.
BARRY EISLER: Exactly. And it won’t be unique to this one phone. It
would be something that the government could use against any phone.
And even if you think that the U.S. government—it’s OK for the
government to be able to break the encryption of anybody’s phone, even
if you trust the U.S. government and think the U.S. government has
never lied anyone, never abused its powers, even if you believe
anything like that, what backdoor is accessible to the U.S. government
would also be accessible to whatever is the American enemy du
jour—could be the Chinese government, Russia, Iran, and, of course,
not just to state actors, but also to criminal groups and hackers. A
vulnerability in a phone is not accessible to just one actor. It
becomes vulnerable to everyone.
AMY GOODMAN: But he killed 14 people, he and his wife.
BARRY EISLER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And they just want access to see if there’s other plans.
I mean, who knows what would be?
BARRY EISLER: So this is another thing the government is typically
good at. It tries to find the most attractive fact pattern it can to
use as the thin edge of a wedge that it can then use in other less
obvious fact patterns. And I see this again and again. People don’t
remember that well now, but José Padilla—I’m sure you guys
remember—the so-called dirty bomber, I mean, José Padilla was accused
of trying to create a radiological bomb and detonate it in Chicago,
and a whole lot of people were going to die. And so, to keep us safe
from that kind of thing, the government arrested him, held him on a
Navy ship, offshored him—no due process, no charges, no trial, no
access to a lawyer. It was unprecedented. But they were careful to
choose what for them was an attractive fact pattern, before doing
something so unprecedented. They picked a scary-looking guy and
accused him of doing scary things. And people didn’t protest the way
they would have if they had chosen someone a little bit different.
So it’s the same thing here. They’re not doing this in the name of, I
don’t know, preventing someone from shoplifting or something like
that. They’ve chosen a very attractive fact pattern so that they can
say the talking points that you were just parroting, which is like,
"Come on, this is just to keep us safe from the really scary people
who want to kill us all in our beds," and who indeed did kill a lot of
people in San Bernardino.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, to what extent do you think that accounts for
public opinion? Because a recent Pew [Research] Center poll found that
51 percent of Americans think Apple should comply with the FBI and
unlock the iPhone of one of the perpetrators of the attacks, and only
38 percent said that the FBI should not, and the rest had no opinion.
BARRY EISLER: Yeah, which is not actually—which is not a bad response
to anyone who thinks that Apple is doing this as some sort of
publicity stunt. I mean, for the moment, anyway, more people think
that Apple should comply than think that it shouldn’t. I think the
fact that so many people, actually, that 38 percent, think it’s a
really bad idea for Apple to be forced to do this is, in part, a
tribute to the educational value of the Snowden revelations and all
the journalism that’s been built on them, because I’m pretty
sure—can’t really conduct this experiment, but I’m pretty sure that if
it hadn’t been for Snowden’s revelations, the public would be focusing
entirely on the keep-us-safe-from-the-terrorists aspect of this whole
thing, and not on the but-this-is-going-to-destroy-privacy aspect.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, interestingly, Apple has made the iCloud
available. It’s not like they haven’t done that. I mean, there have
been many requests of these different phone manufacturers to get
access to the iCloud.
BARRY EISLER: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: And, I mean, the government can’t just get access to it;
they have to get permission.
BARRY EISLER: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: So they’re making a distinction between the actual physical phone—
BARRY EISLER: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Apparently they turned off the iCloud at some point—
BARRY EISLER: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —so it’s what’s remained on that phone since the point
they turned it off.
BARRY EISLER: Right. So, the idea here is that some of your data is
not accessible even by the company that created the product. It’s on
your local device, and no one else should have access to it but you.
Apple has, in fact, complied with the government in the government’s
request to turn over data to which it has access. Maybe people might
like that, they might not like it. My own feeling is, look, as long as
it’s pursuant to a warrant and it’s not secret and it’s out in the
open, I can live with it. But the notion that now Apple is going to
crack encryption that its users have come to rely on to keep their
data private is—is an entirely new thing.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to turn to comments made by Bill Gates,
the co-founder of Microsoft. He was asked about the ongoing dispute
between Apple and the FBI, and said it was important to strike a
balance between privacy and government access. Gates was speaking to
BILL GATES: The extreme view that the government always gets
everything, nobody supports that; having the government be blind,
people don’t support that. ... I do believe that—that with the right
safeguards, there are cases where the government, on our behalf, like
stopping terrorism, which could get worse in the future, that that is
valuable, but striking that balance. Clearly, the government’s taken
information historically and used it in ways that we didn’t expect,
going all the way back, say, to the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. So, I’m
hoping now we can have the discussion. I do believe there are sets of
safeguards where the government shouldn’t have to be completely blind.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Bill Gates speaking to Bloomberg News. Your response?
BARRY EISLER: It’s interesting. He’s so close to an epiphany. He talks
about J. Edgar Hoover. Maybe he knows about COINTELPRO. He
acknowledges that the government has abused powers that it’s been
given in the past. And so, you think he’s going in a certain direction
with this, and then he just comes up with this platitude, which is we
have to strike a balance. Like who doesn’t think that we shouldn’t
strike a balance? It’s just meaningless. There’s no one who would say,
"I don’t think we need a balance. I think it’s just one or the other."
So, I don’t know. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that Microsoft is a
fading technology company and Apple is a premier one.
AMY GOODMAN: Microsoft has said that in the past, that 80 tech
companies have cooperated—I mean, WikiLeaks has said that 80 tech
companies in the past have cooperated with the NSA, the National
Security Agency, including Microsoft.
BARRY EISLER: Yeah, so much of the—of Snowden’s revelations were about
this very thing. And the fact that the public knows about corporate
cooperation with the government now is in part, I think, what has
emboldened Apple to push back, because, again, if we didn’t know about
these things, I would expect that Apple would be quietly cooperating.
There would be no cost to their doing so. But they realize now that
there’s a significant constituency among their customers that wants
robust privacy features in Apple products, and to please those
customers, Apple realizes that in this public battle with the FBI, it
can’t just roll over and serve the FBI; otherwise, it might turn into
the next Microsoft.
Part 2: Former CIA Agent Barry Eisler Turned Writer on
Imagining/Predicting Gov't Surveillance
February 25, 2016
In our extended conversation with Barry Eisler, a former CIA agent
turned writer, he discusses his political thrillers, most recently,
"The God’s Eye View." "There have been a lot of things I’ve written
about that surprisingly turned out to be true," Eisler says. "If you
read the news ... and you use your imagination, you can read between
the lines in ways that will allow you to predict in somewhat
depressing fashion what the government is really up to."
Watch Part 1: Will FBI Take a Bite Out of Apple? Former CIA Agent on
Showdown Between Apple & U.S. Government
Watch Part 2: Former CIA Agent Says Edward Snowden Revelations
Emboldened Apple to Push Back Against FBI
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and
Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, with Part 2 of our
interview with the thriller writer, The New York Times best-selling
author, Barry Eisler. His latest book is called The God’s Eye View.
Now, while it is fiction, he had his own experiences within the CIA,
in the covert wing of the Central Intelligence Agency, so there’s a
lot here. Well, you call it, Barry, reality-based.
BARRY EISLER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: You have written a number of books, that have made it to
all levels of The New York Times best-seller list. And while at the
time they may have seemed speculative, so many of them have proven to
be true. Talk about A Clean Kill in Tokyo, which you published, what?
Like 13, 14 years ago?
BARRY EISLER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Where you write about remotely hacking the pacemaker and
so many other things. And go through A Lonely Resurrection and Fault
Line and "London Twist," how what, you deem them, might be a little
futuristic actually panned out.
BARRY EISLER: Yeah, there have been a lot of things I’ve written about
that, surprisingly and somewhat depressingly, have actually turned out
to be true. The one about hacking a pacemaker, I did in my first book
in 2002, turns out to be the case. I mentioned earlier Dick Cheney had
his doctor turn the wireless accessibility feature in his pacemaker
off. And there’s been a lot of—a lot of studies now about
vulnerability of not just medical devices, but of cars and even
airplanes, because everything is wired now.
Probably the closest I think I’ve ever come to something that turned
out to be true was in my third book, which I was writing in 2004.
There’s a CIA guy who’s explaining to my contract assassin, John Rain,
that the government has this thing they call a list. It’s a list of
terror targets, terrorist targets, that the government wants to take
out. And the guy, my CIA guy, Kanozaki, says, "There’s—of course
nobody calls this thing an assassination list. That would be gauche
and would be hard to explain in front of some outraged congressional
committee down the road. What we call it is a disposition list." And
then, a couple years ago, it turns out that the White House has Terror
Tuesdays, and what they call their assassination list is the
disposition matrix. I was like, "Damn! I’m even getting the—I’m almost
getting the nomenclature right." But yeah, that’s the government,
right? They’re never going to call it a kill list. In fact, we don’t
even do assassinations. We have "targeted killings." There are so many
words like that, that the government uses to obscure what’s really
going on. You know, if we wind up making another war in Libya, it’s
not going to be a war, it will just be an intervention. We never call
these things what they really are. So that was another one that I was
surprised to get right.
My second book, A Lonely Resurrection, published in 2003, I was
talking about Tokyo Electric Power Company, TEPCO, and the kind of
corruption and cover-ups they were using to conceal shoddy work on
their nuclear reactors. And then, of course, there was the 2011
tsunami and meltdown at Fukushima nuclear reactor, and it turned out
that, yeah, TEPCO was doing all this kind of stuff.
So, I tell people a lot of times that if you read the news, real news,
closely, if you watch shows like Democracy Now! and some other good
ones, and you use your imagination, you can read between the lines in
ways that will allow you to predict, in somewhat depressing fashion,
what the government is really up to.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about facial recognition?
BARRY EISLER: Yeah. I’m no facial recognition expert, but there have
been some great articles about it. Kashmir Hill in Fusion wrote about
this about a year ago, and I used her article as part of my
bibliography. This technology gets better and better. I mean, it’s—if
you think about like speech recognition, 10 years ago, it was a little
bit kludgy; now it’s really, really good. Facial recognition is the
same. The biggest problem with facial recognition, as I understand it,
is false positives. So it’s hard to weed those out. But the technology
keeps getting more accurate.
And if you think about what will happen when facial recognition—as
facial recognition technology grows increasingly robust and is paired
with the government’s efforts to hack into closed-circuit television
systems and all sorts of monitors, all sorts of cameras—for example,
the ones on the laptops you guys have right here on your desk—you
really might want to put stickies over those, over those cameras,
right?—but when it gets to the point where the government has access
to cameras deployed in public spaces all over the world and pairs that
with facial recognition technology, we’re going to be living in a
world that is reminiscent of Minority Report. And if we do wind up
living in that world, as Edward Snowden was saying in a clip you
played earlier, I personally don’t think that would be a good thing,
but at the very least, we ought to be able to make an informed
decision about that and vote on it as a democracy.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: You’ve also said that no one serves up great plots for
thriller writers like the U.S. government.
BARRY EISLER: Yeah.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, is the government the principal source of all of
these different books that you’ve written?
BARRY EISLER: Yeah, yeah. As I say, it’s kind of depressing, again, as
an American citizen, but I’m embarrassed also to admit that as a
thriller writer, every time the government does some crazy thing, I’m
like, "Oh, my god! My next book!" I mean, when Glenn Greenwald and
Laura Poitras first started reporting on the Snowden revelations, I
was like, "This is it! This is my book!" So, thank you, Edward
Snowden. I mean, you helped me write a really great book.
I remember reading in 2002 when the CIA essentially took a public bow
for blowing up some suspected terrorists—which the government never
calls suspected terrorists, by the way; they’re always just
terrorists—blowing up a car full of suspected terrorists in Yemen,
including an American citizen. And that’s when I got the idea for this
list. I thought, "Wow! The rules have really changed post-9/11. The
government is now conducting assassinations"—sorry, targeted
killings—"of people, including American citizens. No due process
whatsoever, no judicial process. They must have some sort of list. Who
would they want to kill? How would my guy, John Rain, get involved?"
So, yeah, every time the government does a new crazy thing, it’s just
like another plot for another one of my books.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Barry Eisler, we thank you for being with us and
for the latest book, The God’s Eye View, New York Times best-selling
author and former CIA agent in the covert division of the CIA, Barry
Eisler. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
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