FBI wants 'legislative fix' on device encryption

The director of the FBI wants Congress to dispense with unbreakable encryption on smartphones.

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.

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