FBI Pleads For Crypto Subversion in Congressional Budget Hearing

FBI Director James Comey pleads with Congress to create a law that would allow law enforcement access to encrypted mobile communications on Android and Apple devices.

In a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing this morning on the FBI budget for the upcoming fiscal year, FBI Director James Comey was again critical of new encryption features from Apple and Google that he claims would make it impossible for law enforcement to access the contents of mobile device communications.

This is not the first time the U.S. law enforcement and intelligence-gathering community has aired this complaint. Last month, NSA director Mike Rogers hit similar talking points at a New America Foundation event in D.C., calling on Congress to draft legislation providing a legal framework accessing encrypted communications. Comey claimed encryption was leading us to “a very, very dark place” in October of last year. The concerns follow announcements from Apple and Google that they deployed encryption for which not even they had the keys back in October.

Today though, Congress got involved.

“The new iPhone 6’s have an encryption in it that you can’t get in to and there is no backdoor key,” said Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) as he reached into his pocket and pulled out his iPhone. “This is different from their predecessors. Their other phones you were able to get into. What is the FBI’s position on Google and Apple’s decision to encrypt these smart phones?”

Comey replied that this reality was a huge problem for law enforcement because these new encryption implementations would make it impossible for law enforcement to execute court ordered warrants where phones were locked and communications data encrypted.

“We’re drifting toward a place where a whole lot of people are going to be looking at us with tears in their eyes,” Comey argued, “and say ‘What do you mean you can’t? My daughter is missing. You have her phone. What do you mean you can’t tell me who she was texting with before she disappeared?”

Comey went on to assure the attending members of Congress that he wasn’t seeking backdoors. He said he wants a way to access the content and communications data belonging to the subjects of criminal investigations after obtaining a warrant. Comey claims that local law enforcement officials around the country are very concerned, because, they claim, mobile communications content play an integral various investigations.

While Comey was unable to quantify the effect of encryption technologies on FBI investigatory work, he did claim that it has become an obstacle in a massive amount of cases, saying it would only become more of a problem moving forward.

“I’ve heard tech executives say privacy should be the paramount virtue,” Comey said. “When I hear that, I close my eyes and say, ‘Try to imagine what that world looks like where pedophiles can’t be seen, kidnappers can’t be seen, drug dealers can’t be seen.'”

Rep. Aderholt then asked Comey what he needs from Congress in order to address the problem. Comey acknowledged that the issue is a complex one, but ultimately that the only reasonable fix would be a legislative one and not a financial one.

“If you want to do business in this country,” Comey warned, “then you’re not going to be allowed to create spaces that are beyond the reach of the law.”

Rep. John Carter (R-TX) wondered how companies are able to encrypt phones in such a way that their contents cannot be accessed while also getting compromised by attacks.

“Cyber is just pounding me from every direction, and every time I hear something or something pops into my head, because I don’t know anything about this stuff, [but] if they can do that to a cell phone then why can’t they do that to a computer so no one can get into it,” Carter reasoned. “If that’s the case, then isn’t that a solution to the invaders from around the world trying to get in here?”

Somehow Carter reigned in his stream of thought and brought it back to the point at hand, suggesting to his colleagues that encrypted smartphones were the perfect tool for lawlessness and in fact a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which allows for lawful search and seizure under warrant.

In an attempt to make sense of the issue, the Representatives explained to one another that no safe in the world is unbreakable, so how is it legal that there could be encryption that is not accessible.

They seemed to agree that the analogy was a valid one, though it some would argue that a safe and a cell phone are in reality nothing alike.

On that note, Rep. Michael Honda (D-CA) suggested that potential legislation seeking access to phone data may be more akin to laws governing access to the content of a suspect’s own mind than to laws dealing with physical access. He contended that some sort of force of law compelling suspects to testify or disclose the information to access their phone under threat of contempt could be another way to work around encryption.

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  • Steve Sommers on

    Obviously this is being requested by people that don't understand security or don't care about privacy -- any. I'm certain everyone reading this already understands but once law enforcement has a backdoor ALL privacy (and security) is lost because the hackers have the same backdoor.
    • Dennis on

      The scary thing is that our lawmakers and law enforcement officials are among those who don't understand this.
  • Laney on

    BooHoo....now they can't easily eavesdrop without any repercussions.
  • ThinkOfTheChildren on

    At first I was skeptical about crypt-subversion, but after hearing the FBI agent's parable of the missing child, I too felt tears welling up in my eyes, just like the fictional mother would have felt. I hope our protectors get all the tools they need to protect our freedoms before any more tears are shed or kittens mistreated by this awful, awful encryption technology.
  • mercenary man on

    It seems the same agency's complain they need more access are the same ones running black nsa programs that collect eveything all the time. Whose spying on who and whose trying to protect business or personal data. If the FBI NSA CIA can't snoop on us they go to congress and bring out the pedo excuse. Clearly I prefer to have the choice to use encryption, if the government was not using illegal black programs to hear my calls, spy on my banking or read my email I wouldn't care. But Ed Snowden exposed the the real spys.
  • Gary on

    force of law compelling suspects to testify or disclose the information to access their phone under threat of contempt Translation: perhaps we can finally subvert that pesky 5th amendment as well.

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