U.S. Markets closed

FBI Director Re-Enters the Encryption Debate

Bree Fowler

FBI Director James Comey on Wednesday again called for an “adult conversation” about encryption, saying its growing use is making it increasingly hard for law enforcement officials to investigate crimes.

Nation states, spies, and sophisticated criminals have long been able to hide behind encryption. But Comey said the rise of ubiquitous, strong encryption on electronic devices and apps has allowed drug dealers and pedophiles to hide in the shadows as well.

As a result, the balance that has long existed between privacy and security has been disrupted, he said. And it’s up to the American people—not the FBI or tech companies—to decide if that’s a good or a bad thing.

“There is no such thing as absolute privacy in America,” Comey said in his keynote address at a cybersecurity conference jointly hosted by the FBI and Boston College. “There is no place in America outside of judicial reach. That’s the bargain.”

“Widespread default encryption changes that bargain. In my view, it shatters that bargain.”

Comey's remarks come at a time when the government's role in the privacy of consumer technololgy is in the news. On Tuesday WikiLeaks released documents outlining an alleged Central Intelligence Agency program aimed at using consumer devices like TVs and smartphones to spy on people.

Americans already were uneasy about their digital privacy. In a recent nationally representative CR Consumer Voices Survey, 65 percent of respondents told us they are either slightly or not at all confident that their personal data is private and not distributed without their knowledge.

Comey has long argued that the government needs a way to get around encryption so that it can sufficiently search electronic devices when it’s legally entitled to do so. On Wednesday, he said that during October, November, and December last year, the FBI received a total of 2,800 devices related to criminal investigations from state and local law enforcement. But the information on 1,200 of them was inaccessible because the bureau could not unlock them.

But the tech industry and privacy advocates have consistently argued against measures that could weaken encryption or create so-called “back doors,” saying they would put everything from national security to consumers' banking and personal communications at risk. 

“There is nearly universal consensus from technologists that it’s impossible to build weaknesses or access mechanisms into technology that can only be used by the good guys and not by the bad,” Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, wrote in an email to Consumer Reports. “No amount of foot stamping or demanding that technologists work harder can change that fact.” 

The encryption debate grabbed headlines in February 2016 when Apple fought demands that it help the FBI crack into a locked iPhone used by one of the attackers in the San Bernardino, Calif., shootings. But the battle died down after the FBI found another way to access the information on the San Bernardino phone.

At Wednesday’s event, Comey said he is not in favor of weakening encryption or creating back doors, arguing that there are other ways to give the government access to the information stored on electronic devices. He cited as an example the mobile-device-management software the FBI and private companies install on the phones they issue to employees. That gives the employer the ability to unlock a phone, access its information, and remotely wipe it.

Comey stopped short of proposing a specific plan, but any program to grant the government access to the millions of devices owned by American citizens remains troubling to privacy advocates such as Kevin Bankston, director of New America's Open Technology Institute.

“Think of the loss of consumer trust,” Bankston wrote via email. “I don’t know many Americans, much less international or business consumers, who would want to buy or rely on a phone that’s been explicitly designed to allow governments to secretly and remotely access its contents.”



More from Consumer Reports:
Top pick tires for 2016
Best used cars for $25,000 and less
7 best mattresses for couples

Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2017 Consumers Union of U.S.