August 30, 2016–Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey reiterated his push for a national “adult conversation” about encryption technologies and making sure that law enforcement authorities had the ability to access decrypted communications, but he predicted that debate would not resume in earnest until next year due to the prominence of the fall elections. Speaking today at an event organized by Symantec Corp., Mr. Comey largely went over old ground in calling for further national debate on law enforcement access to decrypted communications for the purpose of arriving at some middle-ground position on the issue where Americans would enjoy the benefits of strong encryption and law enforcement would have ready access to decrypted communications in the pursue of criminals and terrorists.
Mr. Comey and other Obama administration officials have been calling for such a debate and result for the past two years, and while the administration has at times sounded hopeful notes about such talks with the tech sector, it also has sworn off seeking a legislative solution to the problem. In his remarks today, Mr. Comey said law enforcement’s problem with its inability to access decrypted communications — what the FBI director has called the “going dark” problem — has only worsened in the three years since former National Security Agency contract worker Edward Snowden began leaking secrets about how the NSA conducts surveillance activities
“That dark corner of the room . . . has been spreading to more of the room,” Mr. Comey said.
But given the prominence of the upcoming elections, Mr. Comey said the encryption issue had ceased to be front-page news, and that the government would renew its push for more debate in 2017. “We want to collect information this year so we can conduct an adult conversation [on the encryption issue] next year,” he said today. “That debate has gone under the surface this year.”
“We can have it next year when we are not engaged in an election,” he said. In arguing for a solution to the problem, Mr. Comey reiterated that while the Fourth Amendment protected privacy, it did not offer absolute protection if law enforcement had probable cause and convinced a judge to issue a warrant for information. “There is no such thing as absolute privacy” and being “out of judicial reach,” he said. Mr. Comey asserted that the inability to access decrypted communications “upsets the balance” of the law and “changes something at the center of this country that is really important.”
He reiterated that it should not be up to tech-sector companies to decide the issue; rather, “the American people should decide how we want to govern ourselves.” Mr. Comey also reiterated that he was not advocating against the use of strong security technologies, but said that “absolute user control of data is not a requirement of strong encryption.”
State and local law enforcement authorities have sought help from the FBI this year to access the contents of approximately 5,000 communications devices, but the bureau has been unable to access about 650 of those, Mr. Comey said. Elsewhere during his remarks today, Mr. Comey bemoaned that most U.S. companies did not seek the FBI’s help when their networks were attacked. He promised that when companies did reach out to the FBI, “we will not re-victimize you.” The FBI director also said that terrorist organizations have up to this point not developed the ability to conduct serious intrusions of U.S.-based networks, but predicted “surely they will develop that capability.” – John Curran, email@example.com