FBI to Senate: Encryption poses national security threat

Strong encryption by private communication companies is causing the trail on cyber criminals to "go dark," FBI Director James Comey and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates told the Senate Wednesday.

Top Justice Department Officials spent Wednesday telling two Senate committees that the same companies who created the encrypted communication platforms used by the masses need to create a way for law enforcement to read those encrypted communications.

FBI Director James Comey and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday that without a way to remove encryption, law enforcement’s ability to stop everyone from ISIL to pedophiles to gang members is severely hindered.

“We are seeing more and more cases where we believe significant evidence resides on a phone, a tablet, or a laptop — evidence that may be the difference between an offender being convicted or acquitted,” said Comey and Yates in their written testimony. “If we cannot access this evidence, it will have ongoing, significant impacts on our ability to identify, stop, and prosecute these offenders.”

Comey, who testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on the same topic later Wednesday, has spent the past year advocating for companies to include a “backdoor” in their encrypted systems to keep criminals from what he calls “going dark.” Many people, from privacy experts to computer scientists, have said what Comey’s asking for is either technologically infeasible or could create a vulnerability that would eventually be exploited by malicious actors.


Those worries haven’t stopped Comey from calling on tech companies to figure something out, which he did during his opening remarks “Maybe this is too hard, but given the stakes, we’ve got to give it a shot,” he said. “It hasn’t been given a shot.”

Yates told the committee that law enforcement is not looking for a “front door, backdoor and any other kind of door,” but some type of way law enforcement can work with companies like Apple and Google to solve crimes.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was one of the more vocal supporters of what the FBI was proposing, saying companies need to find a way to keep “those who would do us enormous harm” from gaining “a respite from any kind of interaction with law enforcement.”

“The terrible costs that Apple and Google will have on state and local law enforcement must also be considered,” she said. “Simply put, if criminals and wrongdoers can hide the evidence of their wrongdoings on their phones, then crimes will go unsolved, criminals will go free and the safety of our citizens will be diminished.”

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, speaking at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, echoed this statement, calling recent iPhone 6 advertisements that touted the phone as resistant to law enforcement searches “deeply disturbing.”


Comey has been on the offensive prior to Wednesday’s hearing, writing a blog post on Lawfare about the need for robust debate around encryption technology. The same day, a number of prominent computer scientists released a white paper saying encryption backdoors “would be even greater today than it would have been 20 years ago” when debates raged over the Clipper chip.

“In the wake of the growing economic and social cost of the fundamental insecurity of today’s Internet environment, any proposals that alter the security dynamics online should be approached with caution. Exceptional access would force Internet system developers to reverse ‘forward secrecy’ design practices that seek to minimize the impact on user privacy when systems are breached.”

Comey was quick to condemn the accusations.

“I don’t want ‘exceptional’ access,” he told the intelligence committee, referencing the report. “I want ordinary access, where a judge issues an order and folks are able to comply with the order that a judge issues.”

He went on to describe a common pattern of social media solicitation employed by ISIS, where vulnerable Americans are drawn in by Twitter posts calling for what Comey described as “horrific crimes” — beheading and other acts of terrorism. Prospective recruits are then vetted by ISIS through private messaging — an avenue that the FBI can trace. If a recruit is deemed serious enough, however, they are referred to third party encrypted communication software, at which point the trail goes cold — the FBI does not possess the tools to decode these exchanges.


“We’re at an inflection point where tech has moved to a place where encryption has become the default,” Comey told the intelligence committee. “We cannot break strong encryption.”

Access to encryption tools that would allow the FBI and other agencies to monitor these exchanges, Comey said, could represent the difference between life and death.

“This is not your grandfather’s al-Qaida,” he warned. “This is a very different threat we face.”


Grayson Ullmann contributed to this report.

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