Federal Bureau of Investigation director James B. Comey is not over with his anti-encryption litany. The FBI chief has made numerous remarks about major Silicon Valley companies posing a threat to law enforcement by enabling encryption by default in their newest products but Comey still had several strong words to part with.
In a speech delivered to an audience at the Brookings Institute in Washington D.C., Comey once again warned the public that Apple and Google are enabling pedophiles, kidnappers, terrorists and all sorts of violent criminals and are leading us all to "a very dark place."
"Those charged with protecting our people aren't always able to access the evidence we need to prosecute crime and prevent terrorism even with lawful authority," Comey said. "We have the legal authority to intercept and access communications and information pursuant to court order, but we often lack the technical ability to do so."
Comey cited several cases where he said being able to access mobile devices was crucial to extracting evidence against suspects in a case or absolving wrongly accused suspects. One of the cases involved the murder of a 12-year-old boy in Louisiana where authorities were able to obtain evidence from both the suspect's and victim's mobile phones. In another example, Comey said law enforcement was able to confirm a suspect's location in a hit-and-run incident in Sacramento, California by accessing the suspect's phone's GPS data.
"We have seen case after case - from homicides and car crashes to drug trafficking, domestic abuse, and child exploitation - where critical evidence came from smartphones, hard drives, and online communications," said Comey.
However, critics have panned Comey's statements, saying that "a couple of anecdotes from the FBI isn't enough" to convince the public, which makes the market decisions for companies such as Apple and Google, that the United States government can be trusted in a post-Snowden era. Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), says Comey failed to make it clear in his examples how decryption assisted the FBI in going after criminals.
Laura W. Murphy, director of the Washington Legislative Office also of the ACLU, says allowing the FBI and other government agencies access to private individuals' information puts at risk this information for other parties looking to snoop.
"Whether the FBI calls it a front door or a back door, any effort by the FBI to weaken encryption leaves our highly personal information and our business vulnerable to hacking by foreign governments and criminals," Murphy says.
Apple has yet to comment on Comey's statement, but Google says enabling encryption is similar to using physical safes and vaults. People can use it to keep their information secure, but when the FBI or any other law enforcement agency shows up at the front door with a search warrant, they have to open those vaults aka those encrypted phones.
Without encryption, government agencies can simply go to the technology companies and compel them to hand over the individual user's information, without the user knowing that he is under surveillance.