One of the most high-profile speakers at this year’s SXSW conference was supposed to be FBI director James Comey, who was set to be interviewed by Newseum CEO Jeffrey Herbst. It would have been particularly timely as well: shortly before the event, President Donald Trump’s baseless wiretapping accusations reportedly drove a rift between the White House and Comey, who allegedly asked the Justice Department to publicly refute Trump’s claim. Naturally, this meant that Comey was replaced at the last minute by FBI general counsel James Baker, for a talk that completely ignored the political issues that are otherwise unavoidable at SXSW.
Comey almost certainly wouldn’t have faced a hardball interview at SXSW, even if he had shown up. The topic of discussion was “challenges to our national security,” and “how today’s FBI works to protect the public while safeguarding civil liberties, civil rights, and the rule of law.” Baker briefly noted Comey’s absence, saying that he “had some other people who wanted to talk to him in Washington, DC today.” Then he launched into questions covering the greatest current cyber threats (including a complex technological ecosystem and “hacktivists”), how much the FBI thinks about privacy (“I have a whole team of lawyers that think about nothing but privacy all day long”), and whether there was still a threat of criminals “going dark” behind unbreakable encryption (“The bureau supports strong encryption ... but I think we have to acknowledge that encryption has costs”).
These are standard FBI talking points, and any speaker would probably stick to many of them, including Comey. But the context would have been different. Everything Comey says is news, down to quirky details about his private Instagram account. It’s easy to ignore a basically unknown official answering generic questions while the agency privately feuds with the White House. When the FBI’s director does the same thing in an extremely charged political climate, the anodyne topics and bland answers become noteworthy in themselves.
Comey’s presence would also have highlighted the lack of tough audience questions, which were entirely curated via app. Some touched on interesting topical issues, including how to secure the internet of things and whether the FBI would help companies patch vulnerabilities like those revealed by WikiLeaks. (“We need to be cognizant of the vast metadata that we are producing about ourselves,” noted Baker about the former issue; for the latter, he said “there is a balance that has to go on” between notifying companies about security holes and stockpiling them for law enforcement efforts.) But two separate questions amounted to “are you using AI?” and “are you using machine learning?” — both of which, as the terms are currently used, are nearly interchangeable.
Meanwhile, nobody pressed Baker on how the FBI will deal with the White House’s serious surveillance accusations, the increasingly politicized role of cybersecurity investigations, and larger questions about politically motivated hacking. Nor do we have a better idea of how the agency will function under an administration that’s very different from Obama’s. You can’t even go to a fantasy TV series panel at this year’s SXSW without hearing about Donald Trump’s policies — but apparently, they’re not all that relevant to the FBI.