FBI Director James Comey on Wednesday twice used the word “depressing” in describing his reaction to tech companies’ recent plea to President Obama for the White House to support universal strong encryption.
“I read this letter and I think either these folks don’t see what I see, or they are not fair-minded,” Comey said during a Q&A at Georgetown Law school. “Either one of those things is depressing to me.”
The Obama administration has been sparring with tech companies over encryption standards since government leaker Edward Snowden exposed several secret surveillance programs.
The White House is preparing a report that is expected to lay out several options for how law enforcement might be able to legally bypass encryption during investigations, prompting the tech coalition's letter.
The FBI has been leading the charge against what Comey calls the “going dark” problem.
As companies like Apple and Google encrypt their devices and products so that not even they can access the data, law enforcement officials claim they are being thwarted from obtaining crucial information during investigations, even when they have a warrant.
“Look, I recognize the challenges facing our tech companies,” Comey said, noting the market demand for encryption both at home and abroad.
He also insisted “encryption is a good thing,” adding, “there are tremendous societal benefits to encryption.”
But Comey also believes total encryption erodes the ability of law enforcement officials to obtain information through established legal channels.
“All of our lives, including the lives of criminals and terrorist and spies, will be in a place that is utterly unavailable to the court-ordered process,” he explained. “That, I think, to a democracy should be very concerning.”
Tuesday’s letter to Obama — signed by tech behemoths including Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo — contained no recognition of this trade-off, Comey said.
“I frankly found it depressing because their letter contains no [acknowledgment] that there are societal costs to universal encryption,” he said.
Security experts unanimously agree that any guaranteed access to encryption will create a vulnerability likely to be exploited by nefarious actors.
Comey brushed aside the concern.
“Technical people say it’s too hard,” he said. “My reaction to that is: Really? Really too hard? Too hard for the people we have in his country to figure something out? I’m not that pessimistic.”