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FBI Director Criticizes Apple's and Google's Privacy Policies

FBI director James Comey wants more from Apple and Google over their privacy policies.

Apple’s new privacy policy — designed to reassure consumers as the company embarks into sensitive areas like mobile commerce and health and fitness tracking — has apparently alienated one constituency: The Federal Bureau of Investigation.

FBI director James Comey said the agency is in talks with Apple and Google about revising their policies, which prohibits the sharing of user information — even with law enforcement.

“I am a huge believer in the rule of law, but I am also a believer that no one in this country is above the law,” Comey told reporters at FBI headquarters in Washington. “What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves above the law.”

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook has been outspoken on the issue of privacy, discussing the issue at length during an interview with PBS television journalist Charlie Rose. He sought to differentiate the company from rivals Google and Facebook, saying the Cupertino company’s business is to sell devices — not data about its users.

“Our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products,” Cook said in an open letter published earlier this month. “We don’t build a profile based on your email content or Web browsing habits to sell to advertisers.”

Cook wrote the commitment to consumer privacy extends to the company’s dealings with the government and requests from law enforcement.

Starting with the introduction of Apple’s iOS 8 mobile operating system, Apple said it will no longer be able to bypass personal passwords to access data including photos, messages, emails or call history stored on iPhones or iPads.

“Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data,” Cook wrote. “So it’s not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8.”

Google also said its new Android operating system will similarly encrypt data as a default setting.

These developments tripped alarms for Comey, who told the assembled journalists there were circumstances — in pursuing a kidnapper or a terrorist attack — where law enforcement’s need for information trumps the desire for personal privacy.

Neither Apple nor Google could be reached for comment.

In some ways, the move by Apple and Google to engineer new software with stronger encryption standards also appears to be a fueled by continued resentment about the use of their technology by the National Security Agency for mass surveillance on Americans.

This is something they can do after the industry’s efforts to convince Washington to better protect Americans’ private information hasn’t met with much success.

Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other tech giants have joined forces to lobby Washington to curb such surveillance but they’ve had very little success so far. Legislation to curb NSA surveillance practices, the USA Freedom Act, remains stalled in Congress. And tech companies have had little luck convincing the intelligence community to let them provide more granular figures about how many requests for information they receive from intelligence agencies.

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