The FBI director has slammed Apple and Google for offering their customers encryption technology that protects users’ privacy. “Deeply concerned” James Comey wants to push on Congress to “fix” laws to ensure police can still access private data.
“It’s the equivalent of a closet that can’t be opened. A safe that can’t be cracked,” Comey, speaking at the Brookings Institute in Washington DC, referred to the encryption technology calling the new service “a marketing pitch.”
“But it will have very serious consequences for law enforcement and national security agencies at all levels,” he warned.
Apple has recently presented its latest Mac OS X operating system for desktop and laptop computers, encouraging its customers to use FileVault disk encryption technology to keep their data secure. The tool would also prevent NSA or FBI from having access to phones and computers.
Google said it wanted to follow suit with its Android operating system and “encryption will be enabled by default.”
If a customer does not decline the encryption offer, his or her computer or phone will be locked.
This means that the companies will not be able to unlock a phone or a hard drive to reveal photos, documents, e-mail or recordings stored within.
“Criminals and terrorists would like nothing more than for us to miss out,” Comey said, adding that encrypted information on “a bad guy’s phone has the potential to create a black hole for law enforcement.”
“Justice may be denied because of a locked phone or an encrypted hard drive,” he said.
READ MORE: Mass internet surveillance is ‘corrosive of online privacy’ – UN report
While law enforcements would still be able to intercept conversations, it would be impossible to access call data, contacts, photos and emails.
Comey believes that “encryption threatens to lead all of us to a very dark place,” while the companies argue that it is a necessary option that will protect customers from unlawful surveillance and private data access.
Edward Snowden’s revelations have provoked the US tech companies to find better protection for personal information.
Comey acknowledged: “The post-Snowden pendulum has swung too far in one direction—in a direction of fear and mistrust.”
“Some believe that the FBI has these phenomenal capabilities to access any information at any time—that we can get what we want, when we want it, by flipping some sort of switch,” he said. “It may be true in the movies or on TV. It is simply not the case in real life.”
The FBI director would like to see changes made to the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA, “enacted 20 years ago—a lifetime in the internet age.”
Companies like Apple or Google, should be required to build lawful intercept capabilities for law enforcement, Comey says.
“We aren’t seeking to expand our authority to intercept communications,” he said. “We are struggling to keep up with changing technology and to maintain our ability to actually collect the communications we are authorized to intercept.”
CALEA only covers landline and cellphone companies, broadband services or internet phone services, which connect with traditional phones.
“We also need a regulatory or legislative fix,” Comey said, “so that all communication service providers are held to the same standard.”
Comey’s speech was not the first time he lashed out at Apple and Google for encrypting smartphones. In September, he told reporters in Washington that the encrypting technology offered by the companies, powering nearly 95 percent of the smart phones in the United States, severely hinder law enforcement operations.
Comey went ballistic on Apple and Google’s decision to make everything more private
Everyone is stoked that the latest versions of iOS and Android will (finally) encrypt all the information on your smartphone by default. Except, of course, the FBI: Today, its director spent an hour attacking the companies and the very idea of encryption, even suggesting that Congress should pass a law banning the practice of default encryption.
It’s of course no secret that James Comey and the FBI hate the prospect of “going dark,” the idea that law enforcement simply doesn’t have the technical capability to track criminals (and the average person) because of all those goddamn apps, encryption, wifi network switching, and different carriers.
ENCRYPTION THREATENS TO LEAD ALL OF US TO A VERY DARK PLACE
It’s a problem that the FBI has been dealing with for too long (in Comey’s eyes, at least). Today, Comey went ballistic on Apple and Google’s recent decision to make everything just a little more private.
“Encryption isn’t just a technical feature; it’s a marketing pitch … it’s the equivalent of a closet that can’t be opened. A safe that can’t be cracked. And my question is, at what cost?” Comey said. “Both companies [Apple and Google] are run by good people, responding to what they perceive is a market demand. But the place they are leading us is one we shouldn’t go to without careful thought and debate.”
In a tightly moderated speech and discussion at the Brookings Institution—not one technical expert or privacy expert was asked to participate; however, several questions from the audience came from privacy-minded individuals—Comey railed on the “post-Snowden” world that has arisen since people began caring about their privacy.
CONGRESS MIGHT HAVE TO FORCE THIS ON COMPANIES
Comey’s speech and thinking was out-of-touch and off on many levels: He continually referred to potential “bad guys” as the only ones using encryption, and suggested that, with default encryption, people who are wrongly arrested won’t be able to unlock data within their phones that could exonerate them.
Comey also said, in all seriousness, that the FBI has “FOMO” on catching predators, just like the kids.
“With Going Dark, those of us in law enforcement and public safety have a major fear of missing out—missing out on predators who exploit the most vulnerable among us … kids call this FOMO,” he said.
Comey kept referring to the “debate” and “national conversation” that needs to be had regarding widespread encryption. That conversation, in Comey’s mind, should stop and start with the idea that there must be a “front door” means for the FBI, NSA, and other law enforcement agencies to blast through encryption. In other words, companies should be “developing [law enforcement] intercept solutions during the design phase,” a proposition that, beyond making encryption useless, is potentially not even technically feasible.
“Congress might have to force this on companies,” he said. “Maybe they’ll take the hint and do it themselves.”
Comey repeatedly noted that Apple and Google are simply responding to the “market” and consumer demand, as any good capitalist company would do. But he noted that encryption is not really what people should want, lest the “bad guys” win.
“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. “Perhaps it’s time to suggest that the post-Snowden pendulum has swung too far in one direction—in a direction of fear and mistrust.”
It’s absolutely worth noting that this out-of-control pendulum has so corrupted the thinking of the people that Congress has found it prudent to not pass a single law, not do a single thing, to reign in government mass surveillance, despite Comey’s goal of real-time interception essentially amounting to the ability to peek into anyone’s phone as they use it.
“It might be time to ask: Where are we, as a society? Are we no longer a country governed by the rule of law, where no one is above or beyond that law?,” he said, without irony. “Are we so mistrustful of government—and of law enforcement—that we are willing to let bad guys walk away?”
It also might be time to ask: Are the people chosen to run our law enforcement agencies so out of touch with the American people that they believe that only “bad guys” want privacy?
Agency claims declassified material to be secret.
It’s hard to get information from the government. Even when the NSA releases information about itself, it claims the intel is classified.