FBI director, James B Comey warns against encrypted cell phones

17 October 2014

FBI director James B Comey said yesterday that the ''post-Snowden pendulum'' that has driven Apple and Google to offer fully encrypted cellphones had ''gone too far'', The New York Times reported.

He hinted, consequently the administration might seek regulations and laws that would require companies to create a way for the government to unlock the photos, emails and  contacts.

Comey, however, had few answers for critics who argued that any portal created for the FBI and the police could be exploited by the National Security Agency, or even Russian and Chinese intelligence agencies or criminals.

According to commentators, Comey's position seemed to put him at odds with a White House advisory committee that recommended against any effort to weaken commercial encryption.

Apple and Google had announced new software that would automatically encrypt the contents of cellphones, using codes that could not be cracked by the companies themselves.

The announcement comes a year after disclosures from Edward J Snowden, the former government contractor who revealed many government programmes that collected electronic data, including information on Americans.

The new encryption would hamper investigations involving phones taken from suspects, recovered at crime scenes or discovered on battlefields. However, information obtained by real-time wiretaps, such as phone conversations, emails or text messages would not be affected. Also the government could still get information that is stored elsewhere, including emails, call logs and, in some cases, old text messages.

According to Comey, the push by technology companies to encrypt smartphone data and operating systems, would lead to murder cases getting stalled, suspects walking free and thwarting of justice due to a locked phone or an encrypted hard drive, AP reported.

According to privacy advocates and technology experts, the concerns seemed exaggerated and amounted to recycled arguments the government had raised against encryption since the early 1990s.

He likened encrypted data to a safe that could not be cracked or a closet door that would not open. He added the move by tech companies to protect user communications in the name of privacy would certainly impede a wide range of criminal investigations. He said new legislation to let law enforcement to intercept communications was needed at a time of advancing technology and new forms of communication.

"We have the legal authority to intercept and access communications from information pursuant to court order, but we often lack the technical ability to do so," Comey said in his Brookings Institution speech.

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