Encrypted Messages Stymied Probe of Garland Shooting — FBI Director


Encrypted Messages Stymied Probe of Garland Shooting — FBI Director

FBI Director James Comey Jr. testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington December 9, 2015. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who said after the Paris attacks that the status quo was “unacceptable”.

He said the Federal Bureau of Investigation was focused intently on the threat of homegrown violent extremism, “the radicalization in place” of people who become inspired, influenced and/or directed by a terrorist group or extremists.

Though he said the Obama administration was not seeking to address concerns over data encryption on smartphones, he said he remained concerns that criminals, terrorists and spies were using such technology to evade detection. This is why technologists must continue to dispel the myths behind the arguments against encryption. ”

This isn’t going to solve the whole problem”, Comey said. “I’m not questioning their motivations”, Comey said.

In response Comey appeared to counter his previous statement on the lack of a “technical issue”, and essentially admitted he doesn’t know how companies would comply with the order, but it would be their burden to figure it out. “In fact, the makers of phones that today can’t be unlocked, a year ago they could be unlocked”.

He also says tech companies should just accept that they would be selling less secure products.

William Binney, veteran NSA codebreaker and early whistleblower, said good intelligence is much more a matter of collecting the destinations and origins of communications – the “metadata”, which will not work if encrypted – than of breaking into people’s private messages to see what’s there.

Comey said he is engaged in ongoing and productive conversations with Silicon Valley. “I promise you that’s the way we conduct ourselves”. “We care about the same things”.

One of the attackers “exchanged 109 messages with an overseas terrorist” on the morning of the shooting, Comey said. “That is a big problem”, he said.

If firms have already decided that strong encryption is in their best interest, Sen. “Encryption is always going to be available to the sophisticated user”. FaceTime, Apple’s video call feature, has had end-to-end encryption since 2010.

In the wake of National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations about mass surveillance in 2013, there have been several discussions about governments’ need to be able to look at citizen data and individual privacy. Feinstein offered to pursue legislation herself, citing fear that her grandchildren might start communicating with terrorists over encrypted Playstation systems. ”

US tech companies do not want to be the middleman between law enforcement and their customers”, observed Utah Republican Orrin Hatch to Comey, who said he “wasn’t sure what [Hatch] meant by “middleman”. “Our ability to monitor them has not kept pace”. “We ought to remember the limits on what we can do legislatively, it wouldn’t necessarily fix the problem”. But law enforcement agents still have powerful tools to surveil suspects and gain information on terror plots.

The next steps for the White House on encryption


The next steps for the White House on encryption

THE OBAMA administration’s decision not to seek legislation requiring technology companies to give law enforcement access to encrypted communications on smartphones has a certain logic. In this age of hacking and cyberintrusion, encryption can keep most people safer. But the decision also carries risks. Encryption can give a tiny band of criminals and terrorists a safe haven. The United States must now make the most of the useful side of encryption, but without losing sight of the risks.

FBI Director James B. Comey warned last year that law enforcement might be “going dark” because technology companies, including Apple and Google, are introducing ways for users to send encrypted messages by smartphones that can be unlocked only by the users, not by the companies. Mr. Comey was alarmed this would give criminals and terrorists a place to communicate that was beyond reach even of law enforcement with a court order. Mr. Comey suggested Congress require tech companies to provide what is known as extraordinary access to encrypted information, a “lawful intercept” capability, sometimes referred to as a backdoor, or a special key for the government. We sympathized with Mr. Comey’s appeal and urged all sides to look for a compromise.

No compromise was forthcoming. The reaction to Mr. Comey’s suggestion in the technology world was a strong protest that any weakening of encryption — even a tiny bit, for a good reason — creates a vulnerability for all. The firms also made the argument that encryption can be a positive force in today’s chaotic world of cyberattacks; their customers want absolute privacy, too, for the digital lives held on the smartphones in their pockets. They also pointed out that if backdoor access is granted to the U.S. government, it will provide cover for authoritarian governments such as China and Russia to demand the same or worse.

Mr. Comey said last week that private talks with the tech companies have been “increasingly productive.” That is promising. There are methods the FBI might use to crack encryption case by case or to find the information elsewhere. The FBI and state and local law enforcement are most in need; the National Security Agency has much stronger tools for breaking encryption overseas.

Having stood up to Mr. Comey, Silicon Valley should demonstrate the same fortitude when it comes to China and Russia and absolutely refuse to allow intrusions by these and other police states. It would help, too, if President Obama articulated the principle loud and clear.

That leaves a nagging worry. The United States is a rule-of-law nation, and encryption technology is creating a space that is in some ways beyond the reach of the law. Encryption may indeed be valuable to society if it protects the majority. But what if it enables or protects the 1 percent who are engaged in criminality or terrorism? That threat has to be taken into account, and so far it remains unresolved. It will not go away.