FBI Director Comey is still searching for a so-called compromise on encryption, even though no such compromise is possible. The director made the comments while speaking at the International Conference on Cyber Security last Wednesday, where he said Americans should discuss the issue after the 2016 elections. He said we should have that conversation before some event involving encryption makes it impossible to discuss rationally.
“We are moving to a place where wide swaths of American life are absolutely private,” Mr. Comey said, according to The Wall Street Journal. “This is a different way to live. The FBI should not tell people what the answer is. Neither should companies. We have to have a conversation in this country about where we want to be.”
Pervasive Surveillance is the Precedent
Mr. Comey is mistaken in that initial premise, however. We aren’t moving to a place where “wide swaths of American life are absolutely private,” we are returning to such a place. The FBI “going dark” isn’t the precedent, the surveillance state is the precedent.
The subject of end-to-end encryption was a hot topic earlier in the year, sparked by the FBI trying to force Apple to create software that would bypass user encryption on the work phone of terrorist. The agency won an initial court order forcing Apple to do just that.
In the course of a vigorous appeal—and a lengthy public back and forth between Apple, the tech world, privacy advocates, the FBI, the Department of Justice, and attorneys general—the FBI withdrew its demand and hired a private security firm to hack the device.
The conversation died down soon thereafter, but Mr. Comey wants it to resume. “It became a rallying point for so much emotion that a complicated conversation between people with the same values became […] impossible,” Mr. Comey said.
Seeking Compromise Where None Is Possible
Speaking at the same event, David J. Hickton, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, offered a similar tone as Mr. Comey’s. Mr. Hickton said, “I am confident that we can find a common ground on encryption, but right now I think it’s uncertain.”
As we always point out—because it’s important—encryption is binary. It either works or it doesn’t. If the government or a company has backdoor access, malicious actors the world over can get that same access. Foreign governments, criminal organizations, and terrorists can all target any backdoor that exists, no matter how zealously it is guarded and maintained.
This is well understood by the encryption community, but Director Comey and others in law enforcement appear unwilling to accept it. Mr. Comey approaches the subject from the standpoint that a compromise is possible when it isn’t.