Leaders in both major political parties have increasingly been calling on tech companies to give law enforcement encryption backdoors in the wake of recent terror attacks in Paris and California.
Today, FBI director James Comey has suggested that Silicon Valley isn’t faced with a serious technical problem, but rather a “business model problem,” according to a report on his comments in The Intercept, based on C-SPAN video of the hearing.
On the face of it, Comey’s statement would seem to back away from earlier suggestions that tech companies can and should find a way to allow access to data when law enforcement wanted it, but provide otherwise secure services. Critics have pointed out that any encryption backdoors that can be used by the “good guys” also lead to widespread insecurity, since they can also be exploited by not-so-good guys.
At one point, Comey identified the problem as encryption “by default,” leading even unsophisticated users to have encrypted phones. The exchange looked like a veiled jab at Google and Apple.
“There are plenty of companies today that provide secure services to their customers and still comply with court orders,” said Comey. “There are plenty of folks who make good phones who are able to unlock them in response to a court order. In fact, the makers of phones that today can’t be unlocked, a year ago they could be unlocked.”
Comey also provided a specific example of a situation in which he said encryption was an obstacle for law enforcement.
“In May, when two terrorists attempted to kill a whole lot of people in Garland, Texas, and were stopped by the action of great local law enforcement,” he said. “That morning, before one of those terrorists left to try to commit mass murder, he exchanged 109 messages with an overseas terrorist. We have no idea what he said, because those messages were encrypted. That is a big problem.”
In the end, Comey didn’t really make clear exactly what measures he expects tech companies to take, or whether he’d favor legislation to force them to do it. But he made clear, in a fairly confusing way, that he’s not satisfied with the current drive to encrypt devices.