Intel officials dwell on encryption as a potential security problem

digital key

FBI Director James Comey told Congress that the growing use of encryption by bad actors is "overwhelmingly affecting law enforcement," and he renewed his push for increased cooperation from the technology industry so that law enforcement agencies can execute court-ordered searches.

"A part that gets confusing to me is that folks think we want to access companies' servers, we want to access the source code," Comey told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in a Feb. 9 hearing about global threats. "We would like to be in a world where people were able to comply with court orders. Lots of companies do. Others can't, and therein lies the problem."

"It's not about us trying to get a backdoor," he added. "I don't want a window, I don't want a door, I don't want a sliding glass door. I would like people to comply with court orders."

National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers cautioned lawmakers against viewing encryption as a problem to be solved.

"Encryption is foundational to the future, and anyone who thinks we're going to walk away from [encryption] is totally unrealistic," he said, adding that the challenge is to support the rights of citizens while protecting their safety. "We're spending a lot of time talking about what we can't do. Let's start thinking about what we can do."

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also expressed hope that a high-tech push could provide more options. "I'm not sure we've exhausted all the possibilities technologically," he said.

Industry leaders have defended the use of encryption for commercial products and services. In a June 2015 letter to the president, the Information Technology Industry Council and the Software and Information Industry Association, which represent a range of leading technology firms, wrote that any special law enforcement workarounds to encryption would "compromise the security of...products and services, rendering them more vulnerable to attacks, and would erode consumers' trust in the products and services they rely on for protecting their information."

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said encryption is not the only issue that concerns him. "I fear sometimes we focus just on this piece rather than the whole encompassing issue around digital security," said Warner, who has more than 25 years of experience in the telecommunications industry. "Digital security is a much broader issue."

He plans to introduce legislation that would bring together the technology, intelligence, law enforcement and academic communities to come up with solutions.

Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said he is concerned about terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic State, that are increasingly adept at using social media to recruit new followers. Although the encryption issue puzzles many, he said, "I fear this is not the toughest decision we are going to face in how technology might impact the world we are in."

About the Author

Aisha Chowdhry is a former staff writer for FCW.


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