Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey used his opportunity to testify before Congress about his agency’s budget this week to once again ask lawmakers to give the FBI backdoor access into Americans’ cellphones.
Comey and fellow law enforcement officials across the country raised the alarm last fall after Apple and Google announced new encryption standards to safeguard customer data, which in Apple’s case not even employees can access. Comey and others have argued since that the practice will make it easier for criminals to elude capture — particularly child pornographers. (RELATED: FBI Asks Congress For Backdoor Access To All Cellphones For Surveillance)
“We’re drifting to a place where a whole lot of people are going to look at us with tears in their eyes,” Comey told the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, describing default encryption that law enforcement couldn’t access a “huge problem” that runs afoul of the “rule of law,” The District Sentinel reports.
Comey deployed a two-front campaign to convince representatives to step in, accusing companies like Apple of subverting the law without conscience and appealing to lawmakers’ emotions with a hypothetical scenario, in which law enforcement acquire the phone of a kidnapped young girl, but can’t access it.
“Tech execs say privacy should be the paramount virtue,” Comey said, “When I hear that I close my eyes and say try to image what the world looks like where pedophiles can’t be seen, kidnapper can’t be seen, drug dealers can’t be seen.”
Comey said he had no hard numbers to offer the panel on how often the FBI encounters such encryption hurdles in their investigations, but insisted they come across it in every area of the agency’s work.
“It will only become worse and worse,” Comey said. “I think it’s going to require some sort of legislative fix.”
“To have a zone privacy that’s outside the reach of law is very concerning,” Comey said, warning companies that “if you want to do business in this country, we’re about the rule of law.”
Though some representatives on the panel were sympathetic to Comey’s cause, others in the upper chamber speculate such a request has little chance of passing in the post-Snowden political climate, for both privacy and economic reasons.
Last year Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden said no more than “a handful of members would support the idea of backdooring Americans’ personal property.”
“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?” Greg Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology added.
“The people who are criticizing this should have expected this,” Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said during an event in Silicon Valley last year. “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: FBI Director Says Apple, Google Acting ‘Above The Law’ By Locking Users’ Phones)