Authorities have been unable to access the mobile phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters because the device’s encryption is too stiff to pierce, FBI Director James Comey said Tuesday.
"We still have one of those killers’ phones that we have not been able to open,” he told a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on global threats.
Comey has been a vocal critic of so-called “end-to-end” encryption, which protects communications from even the manufacturers of the device.
In December, Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee that there is “no doubt the use of encryption is part of terrorist tradecraft now” because “they understand the problems [law enforcement] has getting court orders.”
In that hearing, he noted 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.
“We have no idea what he said, because those messages were encrypted,” he said.
Although Comey noted the need for a balance between public safety and online security, he alluded to criminal cases that he says are unsolved because investigators have been unable to crack the encryption on a suspect’s device.
Last fall, Apple rejected a court order to turn over communications sent using its iMessage feature, citing its encryption system.
"I don't want a door, I don't want a window, I don't want a sliding glass door, I would like people to comply with court orders,” Comey told the panel.
Comey’s stance has made him unpopular with the security community, who argue that providing any guaranteed access to law enforcement opens up the day-to-day functions of the Internet — like banking — to hackers.
Tech experts say that what Comey is asking for is still effectively a “backdoor,” and that to provide such access safely is technologically infeasible.
“There have been people that suggest that we should have a backdoor. But the reality is if you put a backdoor in, that backdoor's for everybody, for good guys and bad guys,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a December interview with “60 Minutes.”