FBI Asks Congress For Backdoor Access To All Cellphones For Surveillance

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
Font Size:

FBI Director James Comey is asking Congress to force smartphone developers into building “backdoors” into all devices for law enforcement surveillance– a response to new customer data encryption standards adopted by Apple and Google.

“The FBI has a sworn duty to keep every American safe from crime and terrorism, and technology has become the tool of choice for some very dangerous people,” Comey said while speaking at the Brookings Institution last Thursday, Homeland Security News Wire reports. “Unfortunately, the law hasn’t kept pace with technology, and this disconnect has created a significant public-safety problem.”

Law enforcement heads at all levels across the country, including Attorney General Eric Holder, have criticized Google and Apple since the companies announced new encryption standards for smartphone users, which law enforcement reps argue will make it easier for criminals — especially pedophiles trading in child pornography — to evade arrest. (RELATED: Eric Holder: It’s ‘Worrisome’ That Apple And Google Are ‘Thwarting’ Law Enforcement By Encrypting User Data)

Now Comey is asking Congress to update the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) — which mandates that telephone companies build wiretap access into their traditional networks — to include digital and Internet communications, and provide direct access to authorities.

“[W]e have to find a way to help these companies understand what we need, why we need it, and how they can help, while still protecting privacy rights and providing network security and innovation,” Comey said last week. “We need our private-sector partners to take a step back, to pause, and to consider changing course.”

In the report, Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden speculated that there is little support for such a proposal on Capitol Hill, saying that no more than “a handful of members would support the idea of backdooring Americans’ personal property”– a policy that could also hurt companies’ bottom lines and U.S. economic competitiveness, according to Greg Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

“Who in Europe is going to buy these newly compromised cell phones if Congress insists that they be made with backdoors for U.S. law enforcement?” Nojeim said. “It’s probably one of the worst job killers a member of Congress could propose.”

Earlier this month, Google EChairman Eric Schmidt said agencies had only themselves to blame for new privacy standards.

“The people who are criticizing this should have expected this,” Schmidt told a crowd at an event in Silicon Valley. “After Google was attacked by the British version of the NSA, we were annoyed to no end, so we put end-to-end encryption at rest as well as through our systems, making it essentially impossible for interlopers of any kind to get that information.” (RELATED: Google Chairman: Feds Can Blame Themselves For New Phone Encryption)

Comey’s request also comes amid a crammed and closing legislative calendar on a midterm election year, with a major National Security Agency reform bill still awaiting a vote in the Senate. (RELATED: Senate Unveils New NSA Reform Bill, Silicon Valley, Privacy Advocates Praise)

Follow Giuseppe on Twitter and Facebook