Obama Administration Gives Up on Law To Access Encrypted Data
After many months of pressing for law enforcement to get backdoor access to encrypted communications, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey [pictured] said last week that President Barack Obama's administration "has decided not to seek a legislative remedy now."
Comey, who has long criticized large tech firms like Apple for their stance on end-to-end encryption, also took a conciliatory tone in describing the administration's talks with the industry.
"The people in industry are good folks," Comey told the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs during a hearing Thursday. Noting that ongoing talks with the tech industry have been very productive, he said the important part is to remove the "venom."
Comey's remarks reflect a decision made during an October 1 Cabinet meeting not to push for a federal law requiring technology companies to provide backdoor access to encrypted communications, according to a report in the Washington Post. Technology and security experts have insisted there is no way to ensure that such access could be provided only to "good guys."
'A Big Problem'
Despite the softer tone he adopted last week, Comey made it clear that officials will continue to seek ways to gain access to encrypted communications. He offered the example of a recruiter for ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) establishing a connection with a supporter in the U.S. first via Twitter, where law enforcement can follow the conversation, and then moving to communication on an end-to-end-encrypted mobile device.
"The needle we have found disappears on us when it becomes most dangerous," Comey said, adding that even "with a court order, we cannot see what is being said . . . This is a big problem."
Last month, The New York Times reported that over the summer Apple had declined to comply with a court order from the U.S. Department of Justice seeking access to text messages from suspects in an investigation involving guns and drugs. Apple said it was unable to access the data sent by customers using its iMessage system because it was encrypted. The Justice Department is currently in court with Microsoft to obtain the contents of e-mail data stored on servers in Ireland in connection with a drug trafficking investigation.
'Not Seen the End of This'
"Despite the administration's apparently final decisions on the encryption argument, I'm willing to bet anyone a cup of coffee that we have not seen the end of this discussion between now and January 21, 2017 (though I reserve the right to limit payouts based on my bank account)," cybersecurity researcher Herb Lin said today in a post on the Lawfare Blog.
Any decision by this administration on the encryption debate would be open to change when a new president comes into office, noted Lin, who works at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation and the university's Hoover Institution.
"In the event of a horrific event for which encryption was used in its planning, the political calculus may well change," he said. "Indeed, it would be surprising if legislation and even a template for the press release had not already been drafted in support of mandatory exceptional access."
Technology backdoors, however, not only risk security but "undermine America's position in the world," said Cameron Kerry, a visiting fellow with the Brookings Institution's Center for Technology Innovation, in a blog post. People would lose confidence in devices made by U.S. tech firms, hurting the industry's competitive position, he said.
"The time has come for the president to shut the door on backdoors and send a clear message to the world that American technology is a trusted instrument of freedom," Kerry said.