FBI head: terror fight requires open backdoors to encrypted user data

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FBI director James Comey called on tech companies to create backdoor access to their users’ data on Wednesday, arguing it was necessary to tackle everything from terrorism to child kidnapping.

In a hearing about the San Bernardino massacre, Comey said keys to encrypted devices should be held by device manufacturers “so that they could comply with judicial orders”.

His comments are the latest in a series of attacks from senior US figures on tech companies in the wake of the Paris attacks and San Bernardino. Comey argued the growing popularity of encryption was making law enforcement increasingly difficult and offered as evidence 109 encrypted messages between a known terrorist overseas and one of the killers in the Garland, Texas shooting in May.

At the time of that shooting, one of the attackers was already being monitored by the FBI and had a criminal record. Comey offered no evidence that either the San Bernardino or Paris attackers used encryption.

“You need to stop people saying, ‘You’re gonna break the internet if you do this,’ or that the director of the FBI wants to stockpile keys to people’s houses,” Comey said. “No, I don’t.”

Comey said tech companies had been happy to offer services that could be decoded in an emergency and was unconvinced that there was a business imperative to make fully encrypted devices or services. “Nobody said their devices were insecure and that we ought not to buy them,” he said.

“The problem we face post-Snowden is that it’s moved from being available to the sophisticated bad guy to being available by default,” said Comey, adding that he was looking for other countries that would sign on to weaken cryptography. “Part of the solution, I hope, will involve an international set of rules somehow.”

Encryption experts warned that providing backdoors would create new problems.

“Trying to legislate secure apps like WhatsApp out of existence or require them to have surveillance backdoors won’t keep strong encrypted products out of terrorists’ or criminals’ hands,” said Kevin Bankston, director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, a Washington-based tech thinktank. “It will only keep them out of the hands of millions of ordinary people who use these products every day to keep their personal data safe.”

William Binney, veteran NSA codebreaker and early whistleblower, said good intelligence is much more a matter of collecting the destinations and origins of communications – the “metadata”, which will not work if encrypted – than of breaking into people’s private messages to see what’s there.

“It’s not looking at content; it’s organizing it by networks,” Binney told the Guardian in a November interview. “It’s not a matter of looking at everyone’s emails and pictures, it’s a matter of identifying communities.”

Both Comey and President Obama have called on US tech companies to give themselves access to customer data so the government can compel them to turn that data over. In a response to a petition, the White House reiterated its “call for America’s technology community and law enforcement and counter-terrorism officials to work together to fight terrorism.

“American technologists have a unique perspective that makes them essential in finding new ways to combat it,” said the White House.

“US tech companies do not want to be the middleman between law enforcement and their customers,” observed Utah Republican Orrin Hatch to Comey, who said he “wasn’t sure what [Hatch] meant by ‘middleman’.”

“Everybody in the United States has an obligation to comply with judicial orders in criminal investigations,” Comey said. “I don’t want anyone to be the middleman, but I want everyone to be a position to comply with judicial orders.”