The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has called for a “robust” debate of the use of encryption, but admitted he believes there is no easy way to protect both security and privacy.
James Comey, the director and chief of the bureau warned that the increasing use of strong encryption is hindering law enforcement from being able to access emails and other digital forms of communication. Essentially, Comey is saying encryption is preventing government agencies from being able to easily snoop on you.
“There is simply no doubt that bad people can communicate with impunity in a world of universal strong encryption,” Comey wrote in a post for the Lawfare blog, while warning that the continuous use of encryption will begin to have a large impact on public safety.
To support his outlandish remarks on encryption, Comey dives into the usual terrorist claims among other lavish encryption concerns.
“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.”
Comey’s recent claims are likely thanks to Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who revealed that U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies were aggressively spying on Americans and targeting large tech companies. In backlash, major tech companies have began to enable encryption on their services to help better protect users communications. This has sparked controversy throughout law enforcement agencies who state important sectors if intelligence are ‘going dark’.
“My job is to try to keep people safe. In universal strong encryption, I see something that is with us already and growing every day that will inexorably affect my ability to do that job,” Comey said.
However, privacy watchdog groups and tech companies argue that strong encryption is essential to protecting privacy and freedom of speech. Pro-privacy activists have even developed the motto “encrypt everything” following Snowden revelations.
Comey doesn’t offer any form of solution, but in any case, if Comey wishes to ban encryption, it would be nearly impossible and outrage would ensue. Yet, Comey believes working to stop crime while protecting user privacy may be a hard act to balance.
This is not the first time the new FBI director has had concerns with encryption and specifically companies making use of it. Last year, Comey raised concern over Apple and Google’s new default encryption policy, stating it places smartphone users above the law and aids criminals.
“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, or that public safety folks will be able to do their job well enough in the world of universal strong encryption,” the FBI chief said, requesting a “robust debate” to resolve the glaring and growing issue.
“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.”