Wyden blasts FBI chief over encryption remarks

Wyden blasts FBI chief over encryption remarks
© Camille Fine

A Democratic senator is blasting the leader of the FBI over recent comments he made about encryption, calling them “ill-informed.”

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenUS ban on China tech giant faces uncertainty a month out Hillicon Valley: GOP lawmakers offer election security measure | FTC Dem worries government is 'captured' by Big Tech | Lawmakers condemn Apple over Hong Kong censorship Lawmakers condemn Apple, Activision Blizzard over censorship of Hong Kong protesters MORE (D-Ore.) wrote a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray on Thursday criticizing him for advocating for a technological solution to what is often referred to as the “going dark” problem: the inability of officials to access data on encrypted devices for ongoing investigations.

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Wray said during recent remarks that devices could be designed “that both provide data security and permit lawful access with a court order.” He also dismissed the idea that law enforcement investigators are looking for some kind of “back door” into encrypted devices. 

In his letter Thursday, Wyden slammed the suggestion, saying that it would inevitably degrade the security of the devices themselves. 

“Regardless of whether the Federal Bureau of Investigation labels vulnerability by design a backdoor, a front door, or a ‘secure golden key,’ it is a flawed policy that would harm American security, liberty, and our economy,” Wyden wrote.

Wray made the remarks at a conference in New York earlier this month, during which he described the bureau’s inability to access encrypted communications as a “major public safety issue." 

According to Wray, the bureau was unable to access digital content of nearly 7,800 devices for investigations last fiscal year despite having the “legal authority” to do so.

“If we can develop driverless cars that safely give the blind and disabled the independence to transport themselves, if we can establish entire computer-generated virtual worlds to safely take entertainment and education to the next level, surely we should be able to design devices that both provide data security and permit lawful access with a court order,” Wray said. 

“We’re not looking for a ‘back door’ — which I understand to mean some type of secret, insecure means of access,” Wray added. “What we’re asking for is the ability to access the device once we’ve obtained a warrant from an independent judge, who has said we have probable cause.” 

On Thursday, Wyden countered that designing such a proposal that still preserves security would be impossible.

“Experts are unified in their opinion that introducing deliberate vulnerabilities would likely create catastrophic unintended consequences that could debilitate software functionality and security entirely,” he wrote. 

Wyden asked Wray to provide a list of cryptographers he has consulted with to arrive at his proposal. 

The issue of encryption has become a growing source of tension between law enforcement officials and the technology community in recent years as such devices have become more and more widespread. 

The issue took center stage during the public fight between the FBI and Apple in 2016 over unlocking the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Trump leaning toward keeping a couple hundred troops in eastern Syria: report Warren says making Israel aid conditional on settlement building is 'on the table' MORE chose Wray to replace James ComeyJames Brien ComeyFederal prosecutors interviewed multiple FBI officials for Russia probe review: report State cites 38 people for violations in Clinton email review GOP cautions Graham against hauling Biden before Senate MORE as FBI director last June.