FBI director looks to 2017 for 'adult' encryption debate

FBI director looks to 2017 for 'adult' encryption debate

FBI Director James Comey is welcoming the brief lull in the encryption debate, hoping that it will reemerge next year as a less passionate, more fact-based “adult conversation.”

Comey seemed willing to accept the result of a sober conversation during comments Tuesday at the 2016 Symantec Government Symposium in Washington. But he appeared incredulous it would result in anything but requiring tech companies to provide law enforcement a technological means to access currently irretrievable encrypted data with a warrant. 


“At the end of the day, if the American people say ‘You know what, we’re okay with that part of the room being dark, we’re okay with, to use one example, with the FBI in the first 10 months of this year getting 5,000 devices from state and local law enforcement and in 650 of those not being able to open those devices,” he said, without finishing the hypothetical. 

“That’s criminals not caught, that’s evidence not found, that’s sentences far shorter for pedophiles and others because judges can’t see the true scope of their activity. We should not drift to a place that a wide swath of America is off limits to judicial authority."

Many tech companies and researchers have rejected the idea of providing the government with an access point to encrypted information as unworkably unsecure. 

Comey said those who support "strong" encryption and those who support adding “backdoors” to encryption algorithms — both names he takes exception to — should take the rest of the year to gather information to hold a more sober debate in 2017. 

Pushing the debate to next year would place it at the start of a new administration likely to be more sympathetic to Comey's argument. 

Both the Democratic and Republican platforms call for a compromise between tech companies and activists and the government to allow some form of access to all data with a warrant. Republican nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want NYT in the White House Veterans group backs lawsuits to halt Trump's use of military funding for border wall Schiff punches back after GOP censure resolution fails MORE once called for a boycott of Apple for not assisting the FBI in decrypting information on a cellphone, while Democratic rival Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders: 'Outrageous' to suggest Gabbard 'is a foreign asset' Clinton attacks on Gabbard become flashpoint in presidential race Saagar Enjeti: Clinton remarks on Gabbard 'shows just how deep the rot in our system goes' MORE suggested a "Manhattan-like project" dedicated to forming a solution.

The problem, say nearly all experts, is that there may be no compromise that maintains the same level of security. Hackers can take advantage of any gateway intended for the FBI — a problem that recently came to fruition when National Security Agency source code containing secret agency methods to bypass security hardware leaked online, leaving thousands vulnerable. 

Comey said he was not deterred by naysayers. He described the problem as less technological and more ideological, saying tech companies' ideology should not be the determining factor in American policy. 

“The FBI’s role has never been to tell people how to live. Our role is simply to say those tools you were counting on us to use to find people in criminal cases, in national security cases, they are less and less effective every day because of this change. But it’s also not the job of tech companies, as wonderful as they are, as great as their product is, to tell the American public how to live," he said.