FBI director says he's 'not a maniac' about backdoor cellphone access

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Steve Dent
July 7th, 2015
FBI director says he's 'not a maniac' about backdoor cellphone access

FBI director James Comey is making a final push for backdoor cellphone access for law enforcement ahead of key Senate committee meetings. In national security site Lawfare, he first admitted that "universal strong (cellphone) encryption will protect all of us -- our innovation, our private thoughts, and so many other things of value -- from thieves all kind." However, he quickly added that "there are many costs to this," citing terrorist organizations like ISIS. He said that the group recruits members "through mobile messaging apps that are end-to-end encrypted... (and) may not be intercepted, despite judicial orders under the Fourth Amendment."

However, as critics have pointed out, he again failed to mention the downsides of backdoor access. One of the biggest is that it opens new security holes that make everyone more vulnerable, including the government itself. For instance, a company that supplied tools used by the NSA to spy on US citizens and government was itself hacked recently, which could result in a security nightmare if its apps fall into the wrong hands. Another problem is trusting law enforcement not to overreach. Comey said that access would only happen "in appropriate circumstances and with appropriate oversight." However, as the Snowden revelations proved, the FBI and NSA operate without much oversight and virtually no public transparency.

FBI director James Comey testifies before a subcommittee

FBI Director James Comey

Comey thinks that the bad and good parts of strong encryption are "in tension," but didn't offer any evidence that the "bad parts" of encryption have thwarted law enforcement. Instead, he vaguely offered that "there is simply no doubt that bad people can communicate with impunity in a world of universal strong encryption." By contrast, Apple's new, strong encryption scheme has given thousands of iPhone users proven benefits by protecting their personal data from thieves, as one pundit pointed out.

Despite all that, Comey said that the US still needs to have a "robust debate" about encryption. Tech companies like Google and Apple have already made their feelings clear, though, telling President Obama that they were strongly opposed to special government access to devices. Both companies recently introduced strong encryption for apps like Gmail and iMessage, and Apple says it can't read user's messages itself, let alone share them with law enforcement. However, Comey's message may be targeted more at politicians than the public. Later this week, he has crucial meetings with the Senate Intelligence Comittee and the Senate Judiciary Comittee, where he'll try to convince them of the dangers of using encryption to "go dark."

[Image credit: AFP/Getty Images]

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