FBI director wants tech companies to cooperate with government surveillance


Josh Peterson | Watchdog.org

WASHINGTON, D.C. — FBI Director James Comey was quick to defend the bureau as an entity committed to the rule of law and civil liberties in a speech to a Washington, D.C., audience Thursday, in which he attempted to dissuade Apple and Google from improving privacy protections in their consumer products.

FBI CRYPTO-FIGHT: FBI Director James Comey is warning that efforts by Internet companies to encrypt user data by default could put law enforcement at a disadvantage. (Photo Credit: Flickr / Creative Commons https://flic.kr/p/mJ2JSK)

Speaking before the Brookings Institute, one of several prominent Washington think tanks under fire in recent weeks for their ties to foreign governments, the head of the FBI has taken his turn at rehabilitating the bureau’s image in the wake of the past year’s national security leaks that rocked the nation’s intelligence community and bolstered the convictions of privacy advocates.

“Both companies are run by good people, responding to what they perceive is a market demand,” said Comey, “but the place they are leading us is one we shouldn’t go to without careful thought and debate as a country.”

Apple and Google’s recent decisions to encrypt user data by default limit the possibility of effective cooperation between the tech companies and law enforcement agencies, Comey warned, stating his belief that public discourse surrounding privacy and security in the post-Snowden era have swung too far in the direction of fear and mistrust of government.

“We understand the private sector’s need to remain competitive in the global marketplace. And it isn’t our intent to stifle innovation or undermine U.S. companies,” said Comey.

“But we have to find a way to help these companies understand what we need, why we need it, and how they can help, while still protecting privacy rights and providing network security and innovation. We need our private sector partners to take a step back, to pause, and to consider changing course,” he said.

Comey’s fears that encryption will help criminals is not a new position for federal law enforcement. For years, in fact, the bureau has been warning of a problem it calls “Going Dark,” that new technologies would outpace the legal tools law enforcement agencies use to catch criminals.

In a 2011 speech to a House Judiciary Subcommittee, then-general counsel of the FBI Valeria Caproni called for Congress to update the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which requires telecommunications companies and broadband providers to cooperate with court-ordered law enforcement electronic surveillance, to include new technology companies.

Comey, who ended an illegal surveillance program while he was acting director of the Justice Department during the Bush administration, reiterated that need and desire to bring Internet companies under CALEA.

“Current law governing the interception of communications requires telecommunication carriers and broadband providers to build interception capabilities into their networks for court-ordered surveillance,” said Comey.

“But that law…was enacted 20 years ago — a lifetime in the Internet age. And it doesn’t cover new means of communication. Thousands of companies provide some form of communication service, and most are not required by statute to provide lawful intercept capabilities to law enforcement,” he said.

Civil liberties advocates criticized his agenda, however, saying it places taxpayers and businesses at risk of being hacked by criminals and foreign governments.

Nuala O’Connor, president of the Center for Democracy & Technology, said in a statement that weakening the “the security of smartphones and trusted communications infrastructure” shouldn’t be one of the “many legitimate ways” law enforcement can use to obtain the data stored on those devices.

“Companies are providing more encryption because it is exactly the type of protection the public wants and needs,” said O’Connor.

“Director Comey is wrong in asserting that law enforcement cannot do its job while respecting Americans’ privacy rights. In fact, federal law explicitly protects the right of companies to add encryption with no backdoors,” said Laura W. Murphy, director of the Washington Legislative Office of the American Civil Liberties Union, in a media statement.

Calling on other tech companies to follow Apple and Google’s lead, Murphy said, “We applaud tech leaders like Apple and Google that are unwilling to weaken security for everyone to allow the government yet another tool in its already vast surveillance arsenal.”

“We hope that others in the tech industry follow their lead and realize that customers put a high value on privacy, security and free speech,” she said.

Contact Josh Peterson at jpeterson@watchdog.org. Follow Josh on Twitter at @jdpeterson