FBI chief urges 'robust debate' on encryption

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey addresses the American Law Institute's annual meeting in Washington, DC on
Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey addresses the American Law Institute's annual meeting in Washington, DC on May 19, 2015

FBI Director James Comey called Monday for public debate on the use of encrypted communications, saying Americans may not realize how radical groups and criminals are using the technology.

Comey's comments in a blog post appeared to seek more public support for his view, first expressed last year, that stronger encryption being developed for mobile devices could hurt the efforts of US and .

While the FBI chief's comments sparked criticism in the tech community and among civil liberties activists, Comey said Americans may not realize how Islamic State militants use encryption to avoid detection.

"When the government's ability... to see an individual's stuff goes away, it will affect public safety," he wrote on the Lawfare blog.

"That tension is vividly illustrated by the current ISIL threat, which involves ISIL operators in Syria recruiting and tasking dozens of troubled Americans to kill people, a process that increasingly takes part through mobile messaging apps that are end-to-end encrypted, communications that may not be intercepted, despite judicial orders under the Fourth Amendment," he wrote, using another name for the IS group.

He added that criminal probes may also be affected because "there is simply no doubt that bad people can communicate with impunity in a world of universal strong encryption."

The FBI chief and other US officials began expressing concern last year after Google and Apple announced plans to lock communications, leaving keys only in users' hands, in a way that would prevent access by law enforcement even with a warrant.

Those moves came after an outcry over revelations from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden exposing vast electronic surveillance programs by the US and its allies.

Comey said in his blog post that "the logic of encryption will bring us, in the not-to-distant future, to a place where devices and data in motion are protected by universal strong encryption... in such a way that permits access only by participants to a conversation or the owner of the device holding the data."

He noted that "there are many benefits" to encryption, saying it can protect "our innovation, our private thoughts, and so many other things of value, from thieves of all kinds."

But he added that the public should consider the trade-offs of allowing access to the government under certain conditions.

"Democracies resolve such tensions through robust debate," Comey said.

"It may be that, as a people, we decide the benefits here outweigh the costs and that there is no sensible, technically feasible way to optimize privacy and safety in this particular context," the FBI chief added.

"Those are decisions Americans should make, but I think part of my job is make sure the debate is informed by a reasonable understanding of the costs."

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Citation: FBI chief urges 'robust debate' on encryption (2015, July 6) retrieved 24 May 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2015-07-fbi-chief-urges-robust-debate.html
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User comments

Jul 06, 2015
There's no way to reverse this technology ending up becoming available to everyone, since it is too easy to write the encryption software. I just don't see how the government can ever regulate this. Also, I received 3 letters this year that my data was exposed in hacks of enterprise systems and I get free credit monitoring. So I don't trust any private enterprise having the key to my own data if they don't really absolutely have to have it.

Jul 07, 2015
Sadly, our government has shown time after time that they can't be trusted to respect our privacy or rights any more than the terrorists and criminals. Protections set up in the previous century have been mostly undone in the current one by elements of the Patriot Act. Unfortunately, this happened just as we all began carrying around devices capable of providing remote audio and video surveillance at almost any time, even when we think they are turned off. With the IPhone, and now the latest Samsung Galaxy, you can't even remove the battery to be sure.

Jul 07, 2015
Maybe we should leave our door unlocked, just in case law enforcement or intelligence services want to take a look around. What harm could that do when you have nothing to hide? It isn't like the general public needs locked doors when the authorities are there to protect us.

What an idiot. How does someone that has no concept of the need for encryption to protect online transaction end up running the FBI? A world without encryption would be a world with a very different Internet, free of any financial transactions, no online businesses and a paradise for the cyber criminals. The end of the online world but it will make the work of the FBI a little easier...

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