FBI Director: Apple, Google Acting ‘Above The Law’ By Locking Users’ Phones

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
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FBI Director James Comey on Monday upped his campaign against Apple and Google’s new customer data encryption, and implied the companies’ new policies of locking law enforcement out constituted “acting above the law.”

“There should be no one in the United States above the law and… also no places within the United States that are beyond the law,” Comey said while calling for a renewed debate on privacy and security at the “Today’s Terrorism: Today’s Counterterrorism” conference at The Center on National Security at Fordham Law School in New York, Yahoo reports.

“I don’t want to tell people what to do, but I want to try to foster a national conversation about this,” Comey said, according to Mashable. “There has to be some solution that will allow us with lawful authority to be able to have the company unlock the device.”

Both companies announced new default encryption of all customer data in September, which in Apple’s case, not even the company will be able to access without a users’ password. Law enforcement heads at all levels across the country, including Attorney General Eric Holder, have criticized Google and Apple since the companies’ announced changes, 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)

“[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 month about his request that Congress update the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) to force companies like Apple and Google to give the government direct access to users’ smartphones. (RELATED: FBI Asks Congress For Backdoor Access To All Cellphones For Surveillance)

“We need our private-sector partners to take a step back, to pause, and to consider changing course,” Comey said.

So far the request has gained little traction in the media or on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers told Comey there was ‘zero chance’ of passing such a proposal. (RELATED: Congress Tells FBI There’s ‘Zero Chance’ Of Giving the Bureau Backdoor Access To Americans’ Cellphones)

The negative feedback has yet to dissuade Comey, who took his fight from the public eye to the private backdoors of Congress, where the FBI held a classified, closed-door meeting last week with aides from the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees and White House staffers to talk about the issue.

During a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. little over two weeks ago, Comey warned such encryption could lead to a “very dark place.”

“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 told the crowd in D.C. while speaking about criminals’ increasing capacity to “go dark” via advances in technology. “Unfortunately, the law hasn’t kept pace with technology, and this disconnect has created a significant public-safety problem.”

Comey told the crowd in new York Monday that as a larger element of people’s lives transition online, the FBI needs access to the digital portion of those lives.

“In one way or another, our entire lives — our social lives, our work lives — reside online and on these devices,” Comey said. “And that’s a great thing. But that’s also where the bad guys are.”

This year’s House voting record doesn’t bode well for Comey — in a landslide 293-123 vote, the lower chamber defunded similar “backdoor” warrantless searches of U.S. communications by the National Security Agency earlier this year, and the House has already passed its version of the U.S.A. FREEDOM Act NSA reform bill which, although watered down from its original version, still strips the agency of its possession of Americans bulk telephone metadata. (RELATED: House Passes Bill To Cut NSA Funding, Close ‘Backdoor’ Surveillance)

Comey’s request also comes amid a crammed and closing legislative calendar — including passage of the Senate version of the U.S.A. FREEDOM Act — which midterm elections will interrupt Tuesday. (RELATED: Senate Unveils New NSA Reform Bill, Silicon Valley, Privacy Advocates Praise)

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