FBI Chief Concerned Over Smartphone Encryption, AG Holder Resigns, and Feds Pay Navajo Nation $554 Million

Last week in legal news, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) expressed concern over smart phone encryption technology, the Department of Justice underwent a shake-up at the top when Attorney General Eric Holder announced his resignation, and the United States government agreed to pay the Navajo Nation $554 million to settle a civil lawsuit.

FBI Director Voices Concerns over Smart Phone Encryption Technology

As the technology world embraces the release of Apple’s new iPhone 6, law enforcement officials have begun to worry about newly developed smartphone operating systems that would block police access to private data.  With both Apple and Google announcing that the next generation of smartphones will work on an operating system that automatically encrypts private data that will make it impossible for authorities to access data, even if police have a legally obtained search warrant.  Although privacy advocates have welcomed the heightened device security, FBI Director James Comey voiced concerns shared by police officials who believe the tech giants of Silicon Valley have gone too far.

In a report by the Wall Street Journal, Comey said, “What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law,” setting the stage for what promises to be tense discussions with Apple and Google over the legality of their new encryption software.  Since the scope of the NSA’s private surveillance was revealed earlier this year, citizens and tech companies have become increasingly interested in technology that keeps prying government eyes out of private information.  Google and Apple have pushed the envelope with new encryption software, and Mr. Comey’s statements foreshadow a potential legal confrontation between the US Government and the world’s premiere smartphone operating systems.

Apple’s new encryption software will prevent law enforcement from retrieving data stored on a locked device, including photos, videos, and contacts.  Google announced plans to offer similar protection to its customers.  The Supreme Court weighed in on the issue in June, forcing police to get search warrants before looking through a phone, but it appears the new technology would render that order moot as even search warrants would not be able to overcome smartphone encryption.  Given Mr. Comey’s position on the issue, the matter is likely headed for a messy legal dispute pitting the scope of privacy rights against law enforcement’s ability to effectively conduct police investigations on electronic data.

Attorney General Eric Holder Resigns

Last week President Obama announced that Attorney General Eric Holder is resigning his post, leaving the White House searching for a successor.  Holder served as head of the Justice Department for almost six years, the fourth longest of any AG, and was the first African American to be Attorney General.  Holder’s tenure was marked by his ongoing commitment to enforcing civil rights and “restoring fairness to the criminal justice system.”  A polarizing figure, Holder was revered and praised by members of the Left for his progressive approach to managing the Justice Department while heavily criticized by Republicans over policies the Right viewed as over-politicizing the office of Attorney General.

Holder championed civil rights by fighting against excessive mandatory prison sentences, opening up civil rights investigations into local law enforcement offices, and taking state-created voter ID laws to task.  Mr. Holder also was key to levying large fines against banks responsible for creating financial insecurity that contributed to the housing market collapse.  Mr. Holder’s critics point out that he approved of widespread NSA surveillance, justified President Obama’s use of drone strikes, was held in contempt of Congress for overseeing the highly controversial Fast and Furious gun trafficking investigation.

As Mr. Holder’s legacy and lasting impact is debated by legal scholars across the American judiciary, Congress and President Obama turn attention to debating his successor.

Federal Government Pays Navajo Nation $554 Million

On Friday, the US government settled a lawsuit filed by the Navajo Nation for $554 million, bringing an 8-year legal battle to a close with the largest payment ever issued to an Indian tribe.  The Navajos accused the federal government of failing to manage, invest, and account for tribal funds and resources that derived from the tribes 14 million acres of trust lands.  The land is leased for a variety of purposes including farming, grazing, mining, and lumber harvesting, and the Navajo tribe felt that US officials had mismanaged money for decades.  The $554 million, which will be paid by the end of 2014, closes the case to the satisfaction of both parties.

The Navajo Nation settlement is the latest in a string of financial recompense agreements made by the Obama administration to various Indian tribes.  A total of over $2.5 billion has been paid out to more than 80 tribes since 2012 as part of the President’s effort to settle old accounts and improve relations with Indian governments.  

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