Law Enforcement

FBI wants 'legislative fix' on device encryption

digital key

FBI Director James Comey told lawmakers on a House Appropriations subcommittee that unbreakable end-to-end encryption on the Apple iPhone 6 and some Google Android devices is changing the game for law enforcement, and not in a good way.

Comey told the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations panel that federal, state and local law enforcement are bumping up against unobtainable evidence in drug cases, domestic violence cases and even car wrecks.

"It's an obstacle in a huge percentage of criminal investigations, and it's only going to become worse and worse," Comey said, noting that there was no data on how big a problem encryption is for law enforcement. His goal is to find a way to give investigators lawful access to encrypted devices when it is deemed necessary. "I don't want backdoors. I want -- with court process -- the ability to gather evidence after I've shown probable cause to believe that on that device is evidence of a crime."

Comey said the device manufacturers and network operators are only responding to competitive pressures by offering encryption as a default feature, but that Congress needs to intervene. He said that the administration is at work on what "a legislative response would look like."

Comey added that "it's complicated because it involves both communications carriers and device makers, but I think ultimately it's going to require some legislative fix," he said. "We're about the rule of law, but we don't want to create spaces that are beyond the reach of the law in the United States."

He argued that safe deposit boxes and car trunks can be unlocked by court order, and smartphones should be no different. "To have a zone of privacy that's outside the reach of the law is very concerning," Comey said.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy, health IT and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mr. Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian started his career as an arts reporter and critic, and has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, Architect magazine, and other publications. He was an editorial assistant and staff writer at the now-defunct New York Press and arts editor at the About.com online network in the 1990s, and was a weekly contributor of music and film reviews to the Washington Times from 2007 to 2014.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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Reader comments

Wed, Apr 22, 2015

Why does no one view my personal phone or other encrypted device as my private/personal data, whether it contains so called evidence or not? In this day and age it seems like my encrypted personal device is private and if law enforcement, or anyone else other than me, can decrypt this it becomes self incrimination ... which in the US at least is counter to the spirit of the constitution. Our personal phones are treated as an extension of our selves today, there is too much for any of us to remember simply in our heads to conduct normal day to day business. This should not mean the police can simply take my personally encrypted information without my approval. I'm not arguing for criminals, but why can't my own personally encrypted infromation be treated as if it were only in my head ... which the key is?!

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