New encryption technologies on smartphones will make it harder for law enforcement to solve crimes or stop terrorists, Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey said Thursday in a speech asking companies including Google and Apple to reverse course.
“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 Thursday during a speech at a Washington think tank. Federal and local law enforcement “aren’t always able to access the evidence we need to prosecute crime and prevent terrorism. We have the legal authority to intercept and access communications and information pursuant to court order, but we often lack the technical ability to do so.”
Comey didn’t just ask Apple and Google to reverse their decision to bake tougher encryption technologies into the iPhone and Android operating systems. He also said it’s time to update existing laws to allow for federal wiretapping over a broader set of newer Internet-based technologies.
“Both companies are run by good people, responding to what they perceive is a market demand. But the place they are leading us is one we shouldn’t go to without careful thought and debate,” Comey said.
Phone companies are required to build doors into their systems that allow law enforcement to install wiretaps and collect information under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994, but that law hasn’t been updated since to cover some newer forms of Internet-based communications.
Comey said Thursday that the law needs to be updated because criminals and terrorists are using the technologies, and law enforcement needs to keep up, too.
“We are struggling to keep up with changing technology, and to maintain our ability to actually collect the communications we are authorized to intercept,” Comey said. “And if the challenges of real-time interception threaten to leave us in the dark, encryption threatens to lead all of us to a very dark place.”
The move by Apple and Google to build tighter encryption standards into their devices stems from continued frustration about Washington’s inaction to address revelations about mass surveillance by the National Security Agency revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.
Comey said that Americans are wrong to think that the “government is sweeping up all of our communications” because “that’s not true.”
“Perhaps it’s time to suggest that the post-Snowden pendulum has swung too far in one direction — in a direction of fear and mistrust,” Comey said. “It is time to have open and honest debates about liberty and security.”
Americans who are still unhappy about the NSA’s mass surveillance activities are likely more than happy to have a debate about why they think the government has overreached.
Civil liberties groups quickly made it clear they weren’t particularly impressed by Comey’s arguments.
“Director Comey is wrong in asserting that law enforcement cannot do its job while respecting Americans’ privacy rights. Indeed, federal law explicitly protects the right of companies to add encryption with no back doors,” said Laura Murphy, head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office, in a statement.
Law enforcement agencies already have plenty of legitimate ways to get data stored on devices, said Center for Democracy and Technology president Nuala O’Connor in a statement. “Weakening the security of smartphones and trusted communications infrastructure should not be one of them,” she said.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.