Will Comey's encryption legacy at FBI go dark?

Politics aside, what does the firing of FBI Director James Comey mean for the future of cybersecurity law enforcement and the debate over commercial encryption?

FBI Director James Comey, testifying March 25 before a House Appropriations subcommittee.

Former FBI Director James Comey

President Donald Trump's sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey has touched off a political tempest in Washington, but in the eye of the storm are questions about how Comey's ouster could shift the debate over encryption.

During Comey's tenure at FBI, he often warned that modern encryption technology was allowing criminals and terrorists to "go dark" and he argued for tech companies to provide secure backdoors or other keys for law enforcement to access devices and communications.

Comey stated in a March 2017 speech at Boston College that in the last quarter of 2016, the FBI received 2,000 devices related to criminal cases, and it was unable to access the data on 1,200 of them.

"I am keen to force a conversation about this that people understand the impact so we can have an adult conversation," he said.

Comey fought a high-profile battle with Apple when the FBI demanded the company unlock the iPhone recovered from one of the 2015 San Bernardino terrorists. Apple refused, and the FBI ended up paying a third party to hack into the phone.

"Director Comey put the 'going dark' issue on the radar screen for Congress and the general public," said Adam Klein, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

"Encryption of data in transit and at rest has created challenges for federal, state, and local law enforcement," he added. "Director Comey was the public face of their perspective on this."

Klein said encryption is such a contested policy issue because of the implications for cybersecurity, privacy and innovation.

"I don't think we're closer to this issue's being decisively resolved one way or the other," said Klein. "But Director Comey was able to spur a public discussion on encryption and public safety and raise awareness of the challenge it poses for law enforcement."

The former director acknowledged the difficulty in finding a middle ground on encryption because of the benefits to personal and national security.

"I love end-to-end encryption," he said at the Intelligence and National Security Summit in Washington in August 2016. "I don't want anybody looking at my stuff. I don't want anybody looking at my banking information, my healthcare information."

At the time, Comey said opponents in the argument over encryption versus public safety were spending too much time demonizing each other instead of focusing on the policy challenges.

Now some who butted heads with Comey are expressing concern over his termination and whether President Trump, who once called for a boycott of Apple for their refusal to unlock the San Bernardino phone, might appoint a new director who takes a harder line on encryption.

"We have disagreed with Director Comey on many occasions on issues of global importance, from encryption to surveillance," said Amie Stepanovich, Access Now's U.S. policy manager.

"While we have argued with Director Comey in the courts, in the Congress, and in the streets, we note he has also frequently stood up for the rule of law and the political independence of the Bureau," she added.