FBI director questions business case for end-to-end encryption

FBI director urges tech firms offering end-to-end encryption to change business models (Image credit: Brookings Institution)

FBI director James Comey has suggested that major technology firms offering end-to-end encryption products should change their business models to adhere to data requests of the US government.

Speaking at a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing, Comey, who has long campaigned against strong encryption, said that technology firms should always be able to decrypt communications when requested.

“There are plenty of companies today that provide secure services to their customers and still comply with court orders. There are plenty of folks who make good phones and are able to unlock them in response to a court order…so I really don’t think it is a technology issue,” he told the committee.

“It is a business model question. Lots of good people have designed their systems and their devices so judge’s orders cannot be complied with. The question we have to ask is ‘should they change their business model?’”.

Previously, the FBI director warned the FBI is at risk of ‘going dark’ as the popularity of messaging services likes iMessage and WhatsApp soars.

Now, he indicated the concerns of technology firms, many of which started to offer end-to-end products in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations in 2013, are unfounded.

“There are lots of folks who have said over the last year or so we are going to break the internet or we will have unacceptable insecurity if we try and get to a place where court orders are complied with,” Comey said.

“We see that encryption is getting in the way of our ability to have court orders effective to gather information we need in our most important work and we all agree we have to figure out whether we can maximise both of those values; safety and security on the internet and public safety.

“We are not at war; we care about the same things”

The encryption debate has continued amid global terrorist atrocities, most recently in Paris, San Bernardino and Garland, Texas. These incidents, Comey said, were aided by the use of encrypted messages.

“In May, when two terrorists attempted to kill a whole lot of people in Garland, Texas, and were stopped by law enforcement, again, that morning before one of those terrorists left to commit mass murder, he exchanged 109 messages with an overseas terrorist,” he revealed.

Following Comey’s comments, privacy advocacy group, the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), slammed his position.

“It’s clear that what the FBI wants is what it has always wanted: access to all encrypted data, both secure communications and data at rest,” said EFF staff attorney Andrew Crocker in a blog post.

“Rather than seeking legislation mandating backdoors, which would allow involvement, technical review, and criticism by encryption experts and the public, the FBI will rely on backroom pressure to make companies compromise encryption, or even eliminate business models it doesn’t like.

“Comey’s focus on “business models” also misses the sizable portion of encryption applications that are open-source and/or based outside of the US.”

Meanwhile, in the UK, the debate over encryption and surveillance has grown following the publication of the draft Investigatory Powers Bill.

The proposals, which would give police, spy agencies and government enhanced powers to snoop on the public, have been met with opposition from major firms that operate in the UK including Mozilla, TechUK and Privacy International.

“The open internet relies on technological and legal design decisions to ensure its continued vitality. Unfortunately, the legislation before you would undermine that framework, and represent a serious threat to open source software, online commerce, user privacy, security and trust,” Mozilla warned.

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10 December 2015 | 4:31 pm – Source: v3.co.uk

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