FBI director warns data encryption will take U.S. to 'very dark place'

FBI Director James Comey wants legislative changes and industry support to get access to encrypted devices and data.

Image copyright to FBI: James Comey.

FBI Director James Comey has raised concerns about the potential for privacy protections on mobile devices to hamper law enforcement activities.

FBI Director James Comey said he is concerned that law enforcement agencies will be increasingly stymied in their efforts to conduct lawful, court-ordered surveillance as mobile devices and online communications services allow users to decide who may and may not access their data.

Comey acknowledged that Americans are justifiably surprised about "the extent and nature of the surveillance being conducted in the name of the United States," as revealed in classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden. But Comey asserted that the "post-Snowden pendulum has swung too far in one direction," toward privacy protection and away from legitimate law enforcement requirements.

"Are we so mistrustful of government -- and of law enforcement -- that we are willing to let bad guys walk away, willing to leave victims in search of justice?" Comey asked in an Oct. 16 speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Although federal law enforcement officials have long-standing concerns about encryption, Comey said he decided to speak out after recent announcements that Apple and Google are including end-to-end encryption as the default setting on mobile operating systems. Users of encrypted Apple iOS and Google Android devices can control access to data on their devices via encryption keys that the companies do not have access to and cannot override.

In his speech, Comey characterized that kind of ubiquitous encryption as "going dark" and said FBI agents and other law enforcement officials "have the legal authority to intercept and access communications and information pursuant to court order, but we often lack the technical ability to do so."

"If the challenges of real-time interception threaten to leave us in the dark, encryption threatens to lead all of us to a very dark place," he said.

Data at rest and in motion

Law enforcement faces two challenges.

First, the FBI wants to maintain its ability to acquire the content of live communications, or "data in motion." That includes conversations and exchanges of data as they take place across networks between surveillance targets, even as targets shift devices.

Second, investigators want to be able to obtain information stored on devices, or "data at rest." That category of data becomes unobtainable on an encrypted device if the manufacturer does not build in access for law enforcement and if the user does not back up that device to a cloud service that is subject to law enforcement subpoenas and warrants.

Comey sees two paths to solving the problem.

One method is to update the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) -- which obliges telecommunications network providers to build in wiretap access for lawful surveillance orders -- to cover mobile operating systems and communications applications such as instant messaging, Skype, WhatsApp and others.

Comey also wants to see industry leaders such as Apple and Google retreat from their positions on user privacy and institute a method of access for law enforcement.

"There is a misconception that building a lawful intercept solution into a system requires a so-called back door, one that foreign adversaries and hackers may try to exploit," Comey said. "It makes more sense to address any security risks by developing intercept solutions during the design phase rather than resorting to a patchwork solution when law enforcement comes knocking after the fact."

"Ideally, I'd like to see CALEA written so that a communications provider has an obligation to build a lawful intercept capability into the product that they provide, not that we hold some universal key," he added.

Front door, back door

Privacy advocates and security experts argue that granting law enforcement access to encryption keys renders communications less secure.

"Whether the FBI calls it a front door or a back door, any effort by the FBI to weaken encryption leaves our highly personal information and our business information vulnerable to hacking by foreign governments and criminals," said Laura Murphy, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union. She noted that CALEA specifically permits companies to market encryption devices and services.

Although Comey professed a lack of technical knowledge during a question-and-answer period after his speech, he said, "I think there's risk with what I'm suggesting," but "it makes sense" given the risks that are heightened when bad actors have access to unbreakable or nearly unbreakable data encryption.

Those risks include potentially letting terrorist plots go undetected and allowing criminals to walk free because of an inability to access communications or data that establishes guilt. Comey also raised the specter that people might be successfully prosecuted for crimes they did not commit because information that could confirm their innocence was unobtainable.

Legislative action might be tough to come by, especially as Congress considers bills to build more transparency into the way intelligence agencies collect data on communications among U.S. citizens and others inside the country.

During Comey's speech, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a leading data privacy advocate, tweeted, "I oppose requiring companies to build back doors into their products."

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.