Justice official: Law needs access to encrypted communications

Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell on Monday insisted that law enforcement must have a way to legally read encrypted communications as a solution to the so-called "going dark" problem. 

“From gang activity to child abductions to national security threats, the ability to access electronic evidence in a timely manner is often essential to successfully conducting lawful investigations and preventing harm to potential victims,” Caldwell said at the annual State of the Net Internet Policy Conference in Washington, D.C.

Although the Justice Department is “completely committed to seeking and obtaining judicial authorization for electronic evidence collection in all appropriate circumstances,” Caldwell said, the agency must “be able to act on it if we are to keep our communities safe and our country secure.”

She invoked a recent anecdote from FBI Director James Comey, in which he recounted that one of the shooters who attacked a May contest to draw the Prophet Mohammed in the Garland, Texas, exchanged 109 encrypted messages with overseas terrorists.

Caldwell quoted Comey’s remark: “We have no idea what he said, because those messages were encrypted.”

Law enforcement officials have continually argued for some form of guaranteed access to locked communications, while cryptologists and other tech experts insist that unbreakable encryption is critical to keeping the Internet’s infrastructure secure.

They say what officials are asking for — “a way for law enforcement to retrieve critical information in cases where it’s necessary and authorized,” in Caldwell’s words — is tantamount to the much-maligned “back door” that tech experts say is technically infeasible.

Caldwell insisted Monday that online security and “the legal process that protects our values and our safety” are “complementary, not competing priorities,” urging the tech community to cooperate to “meet this public need together.”

Her remarks come the day after a newly released video from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) indicated those behind the Paris massacre last year were using encryption to hide their communications.

Such reports have been circulating since the attack, fanning the flames of an already tense debate over acceptable encryption standards.

Tech companies have been under fierce pressure to open up users’ communications to law enforcement. Apple has argued it cannot comply with certain court orders because of how its encryption is designed.

Lawmakers are working on several legislative solutions to help authorities get access to hidden communications.

McCaul is set to introduce a bill with Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerOvernight Cybersecurity: Equifax hit by earlier hack | What to know about Kaspersky controversy | Officials review EU-US privacy pact Overnight Tech: Equifax hit by earlier undisclosed hack | Facebook takes heat over Russian ads | Alt-right Twitter rival may lose domain Facebook under fire over Russian ads in election MORE (D-Va.) that would establish a national commission to figure out how police can get at encrypted data without endangering Americans’ privacy. The pair told reporters they expect the panel would produce some technological options, instead of legislative solutions.

Sens. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrLawmakers grapple with warrantless wiretapping program Facebook under fire over Russian ads in election 5 senators call for US to shutter embassy in Havana MORE (R-N.C.) and Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinDems call for action against Cassidy-Graham ObamaCare repeal Feinstein pushes back on Trump’s N. Korea policy Feinstein on reelection bid: ‘We will see’ MORE (D-Calif.) want to move quicker and bypass such a commission. The top two lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee are working on legislation that would force companies to comply with court orders requesting encrypted data.