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FBI Director: Time to Discuss Encryption Before 'Something Terrible Happens'

FBI Director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington.

FBI Director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. // J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Encryption took center stage across the country in early 2016 when tech giant Apple refused to comply with the FBI’s request to crack the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.

The issue took a back seat after the FBI paid hackers to do the job for the agency, but the security and privacy issues around encryption are far from resolved.

On Tuesday, FBI Director James Comey, speaking at the International Conference on Cyber Security in New York, warned the tech industry and federal government need to find common ground on encryption before “something terrible happens.”

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"At some point, encryption is going to figure into a major event in this country," Comey said. "We've got to have this conversation before that happens because, after that, the time for thoughtful reflection will be significantly reduced."

With Congress on extended break through September and the November presidential election dominating current events, Comey said it’s unlikely real progress on the encryption debate will occur until 2017 when a new administration takes charge.

In the meantime, the FBI will continue compiling information around numerous ongoing investigations that remain in flux due to encrypted phones. Comey said the FBI is unable to crack some 500 smartphones it confiscated from October 2015 to March 2016.

Common ground may be hard to find. President Barack Obama had hinted he might support law enforcement’s arguments in the Apple’s battle with the FBI, while 32 tech companies stepped up to show support for Apple and the privacy rights of Americans. And Congress? Its opinions are all over the map, too. 

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