Wyden slams FBI head for creating its encryption problem

Wyden slams FBI head for creating its encryption problem

The administration has no one to blame but itself for the spread of strong encryption that is locking out criminal investigators, Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenCongress should elevate those trapped in the gap – support ELEVATE Act IRS shutdown plan fails to quell worries IRS waiving penalty for some in first filing season under Trump's tax law MORE (D-Ore.) told FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyDems revive impeachment talk after latest Cohen bombshell Dem calls for Cohen to testify before Senate panel over explosive report The Hill’s 12:30 Report: Day 27 of the shutdown | Cohen reportedly paid company to rig online polls, boost his own image | Atlantic publishes ‘Impeach Donald Trump’ cover story MORE during a Wednesday hearing.

“Executive branch agencies are now dealing with a problem that they largely created,” Wyden told Comey during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.

ADVERTISEMENT

The FBI head on Wednesday warned two Senate panels that investigators are increasingly unable to get at criminals’ and terrorists’ communications. He pleaded for Congress’s help in pressuring companies to comply with court orders seeking the data.

“Senior officials make the choice to secretly twist the law” and “vacuum up millions of phone and email records,” Wyden said, alluding to the surveillance programs uncovered by government leaker Edward Snowden.

“That led to a very serious public backlash,” which included the widespread adoption of encryption, Wyden added.

Comey has been leading the push for some type of government access to encrypted data. Technologists and privacy advocates have vigorously opposed such privileged access, arguing it would cripple worldwide digital privacy and fail to stop criminals.

Wyden is a longtime critic of government surveillance and has repeatedly bashed the FBI over its encryption stance.

Comey on Wednesday said it's necessary to find a balance between the need for privacy and the need to protect the country, but Wyden wasn’t having it.

“You talk about the need to strike the right balance,” he said. “There hasn’t been a lot of balance in the past.”

And the administration's offerings on encryption, Wyden said, “do not inspire a lot of confidence.”

During a morning hearing at the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sally Yates, deputy attorney general at the Justice Department, indicated that perhaps companies, not government, should retain the keys to unlock encrypted data.

“She was suggesting, in my view, that there be a stockpile of these keys,” said Wyden.

That's “a huge gift to foreign hackers and criminals," the Oregon Democrat exclaimed.

“If you had a stockpile of these keys created somewhere, would you be able to guarantee these keys would never be stolen?” Wyden asked Comey.

“Surely not,” the FBI director replied.

Comey added that he didn’t believe Yates was necessarily suggesting a privately held cache of keys as the right solution. His goal in discussing investigators' difficulties is simply to spur conversations on potential solutions, he said.

“I don't know what the answer is,” he acknowledged.