The FBI’s Charm Offensive on Encryption

FBI Director James Comey

FBI Director James Comey Carolyn Kaster/AP

Featured eBooks

The Government's Artificial Intelligence Reality
What’s Next for Federal Customer Experience
Cloud Smarter

“The FBI is not an alien force imposed on the American people,” the agency’s director says, as feds clash with Silicon Valley over encryption standards.

Play­ing down a nar­rat­ive of an on­go­ing “crypto-war” between the gov­ern­ment and the private sec­tor, FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey said Thursday that shared se­cur­ity val­ues between the two groups mean they should be work­ing to­geth­er.

But Comey said the source of the ten­sion between tech com­pan­ies and fed­er­al law en­force­ment—the pro­lif­er­a­tion of strong en­cryp­tion stand­ards that make it dif­fi­cult or im­possible to read in­ter­cep­ted com­mu­nic­a­tions—could be ad­dressed if only the busi­ness com­munity made a real ef­fort to de­vel­op new en­cryp­tion tech­no­lo­gies.

“I’ve heard from a lot of folks that it’s too hard, and my re­ac­tion to that is: Really? Have we really tried? Have we really tried?” Comey said at an open meet­ing of the House Per­man­ent Se­lect Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence.

Tech­no­logy and se­cur­ity ex­perts have said that build­ing in ac­cess to en­cryp­ted com­mu­nic­a­tions would in­vite in­truders. If a tech com­pany cre­ates a “back door” to al­low law en­force­ment to read de­cryp­ted data, ma­li­cious hack­ers will also be able to find and ex­ploit it, they say.

Com­mu­nic­a­tion ser­vices like Apple’s iMes­sage are en­cryp­ted end to end. That means the data sent across Apple’s serv­ers is scrambled—only the in­ten­ded re­cip­i­ent of a mes­sage is able to de­crypt it. Be­cause Apple does not keep its users’ en­cryp­ted mes­sages, the com­pany re­cently re­buffed a Justice De­part­ment re­quest to turn over the con­tents of an iMes­sage con­ver­sa­tion to law en­force­ment in real time.

At a time when many in gov­ern­ment and the private sec­tor are push­ing for bet­ter in­teg­ra­tion and cy­ber­se­cur­ity in­form­a­tion-shar­ing between the two worlds, the con­flict over en­cryp­tion can be coun­ter­pro­duct­ive to an at­mo­sphere of co­oper­a­tion, tech ad­voc­ates say.

So as Comey pushed the tech in­dustry Thursday to keep try­ing to come up with a solu­tion to en­cryp­tion that sim­ul­tan­eously up­holds pri­vacy and na­tion­al se­cur­ity, he had con­cili­at­ory words for Sil­ic­on Val­ley.

“From a gov­ern­ment side, our re­spons­ib­il­ity is to talk to folks and ex­plain to them: We’re not ma­ni­acs. The FBI is not an ali­en force im­posed on the Amer­ic­an people,” Comey said.

In ad­di­tion to call­ing for U.S. tech­no­logy com­pan­ies to ad­opt en­cryp­tion stand­ards that al­low law en­force­ment in, Comey said Amer­ica’s “in­ter­na­tion­al part­ners” should do the same, a lofty re­quest in a world where in­ter­na­tion­al cy­bernorms are dif­fi­cult to up­hold and where many gov­ern­ments use elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance to spy on and per­se­cute their own cit­izens.

Comey test­i­fied along­side the dir­ect­ors of the CIA, the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency, the De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency, an­d­Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence James Clap­per. The men dis­cussed how their agen­cies are deal­ing with cy­ber­threats and what those threats look like.

Clap­per said that des­pite fears of a single “cy­ber-armaged­don” event, the in­tel­li­gence com­munity pre­dicts a con­tinu­ation of “low- to mod­er­ate-level cy­ber­at­tacks” that will wear away at the private sec­tor and the gov­ern­ment.

He also said that the next gen­er­a­tion of in­tru­sions could be more harm­ful than the cur­rent pat­tern of cy­ber­thefts, be­cause they will do more than just steal data. In the fu­ture, hack­ers may go in­to data­bases to edit data rather than just steal or de­lete it. “De­cision-mak­ing by seni­or gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials (ci­vil­ian and mil­it­ary), cor­por­ate ex­ec­ut­ives, in­vestors, or oth­ers will be im­paired if they can­not trust the in­form­a­tion they are re­ceiv­ing,” Clap­per wrote in pre­pared testi­mony.