The FBI’s fight for government mandated backdoors into our encrypted data and devices is far from over, and Director James Comey says he plans to bring that back to the forefront next year. Mr. Comey says it’s time for an “adult conversation” on the topic, and that law enforcement needs an easy way to access our private data for criminal investigations.
Director Comey shared his thoughts in a presentation at a security symposium organized by Symantec, according to the Associated Press. He said,
The conversation we’ve been trying to have about this has dipped below public consciousness now, and that’s fine. Because what we want to do is collect information this year so that next year we can have an adult conversation in this country.
That conversation centers on whether or not companies should be compelled to create access points, or back doors, into their products the government can use to view otherwise encrypted data. The FBI and Department of Justice argue the back doors are necessary for criminal investigations while security and cryptology experts maintain intentionally compromising encryption is akin to no encryption at all.
Only for the Good Guys
The FBI and DOJ say the encryption in our computers, smartphones, and chat apps makes it far too easy for criminals and terrorists to operate undetected and the only solution is to make our devices and apps hackable. The keys to unlock our data would stay in the hands of law enforcement, they say, and be used only when appropriate.
The debate went public and turned ugly earlier this year when the FBI obtained a court order compelling Apple to create a hackable version of iOS. The order was part of the FBI’s investigation into the December 2015 San Bernardino mass shooting where 14 people were killed.
An iPhone 5c was recovered from one of the suspects who was killed in a shootout with police. Apple helped the investigation by recovering what it could from the iPhone’s linked iCloud account, but didn’t have any way to bypass the device’s built-in encryption, so the FBI turned to the courts for the order.
Apple refused to comply saying the danger in creating an intentionally hackable iOS was far too great, and that eventually it would fall into the hands of criminals and foreign governments. The FBI said the operating system would be safe and used only on the shooter’s iPhone, although that quickly unraveled as other law enforcement agencies chimed in saying they’d demand access to the hackable operating system, too.
In the end, Apple and the FBI didn’t have to square off in court because an unknown company hacked the device’s encryption. Ironically, the iPhone the FBI fought so hard to crack didn’t hold any useful information—something San Bernardino’s police chief expected and said before the mystery hacker showed up.
Next up: It’s all or nothing for encryption