FBI chief signals need to understand potential threats tied to cryptocurrency

FBI chief signals need to understand potential threats tied to cryptocurrency
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FBI Director Christopher Wray on Wednesday said the bureau must be prepared to confront a new set of emerging cyber threats.

“The digital environment presents new challenges that the FBI has to address in terms of what’s coming down the pike,” Wray said in an address to the FBI Boston Conference on Cyber Security at Boston College.

Wray particularly pointed to advances in artificial intelligence or cryptocurrencies, which he warned could have consequences not just for the commercial sector but also for national security.

“I’m convinced that we, the FBI — like a lot of other organizations — haven’t fully gotten our arms around these new technologies and how they may impact our national security and cybersecurity work,” he said.

Wray’s remarks suggest he has decided to dip his toes into the artificial intelligence debate that  consumes Silicon Valley. 

Prominent tech leaders like Tesla’s Elon Musk have called for regulations on AI that would provide guidelines in the event that the technology reaches a dangerous degree of self-learning sophistication that could become hard to safely control. Facebook’s Mark ZuckerbergMark ZuckerbergHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — US cracks down on tools for foreign hacking DC AG adds Facebook's Zuckerberg to Cambridge Analytica suit Senator asks Facebook's Zuckerberg to testify at hearing on kids' safety MORE and other industry experts, however, argue that such warnings are alarmist and premature since the technology is far from achieving human intelligence. 


Financial officials are also grappling with how to regulate virtual currencies as cyber thieves continue to target digital wallets as values spike. Those changes have raised new questions over how the government should regulate the growing industry.

The FBI chief also signaled that government agencies must understand these new issues in order to properly evaluate their future implications on national security.

Wray also emphasized the bureau’s ongoing challenge of breaking through the encryption barriers in devices that could offer key information in law enforcement investigations.

“We face an enormous and increasing number of cases that rely on electronic evidence. And we face a situation where we’re increasingly unable to access that evidence, despite lawful authority to do so,” Wray said.

The director has repeatedly argued that the bureau’s inability to access data from roughly 7,800 devices last year, a problem known as “going dark," poses a “major public safety issue” because it hinders their ability to prosecute terrorists and criminals.

Privacy hawks and tech experts, however, warn that if encryption is weakened for authorities, it could not only lead to further government abuse, but it could also create an opportunity for malicious actors to exploit the vulnerabilities.

Wray said he is "open to all constructive solutions ... that take the public safety issue seriously."

“We’re not looking for a ‘back door’ — which I understand to mean some type of secret, insecure means of access,” Wray said in part. “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.”