FBI Director James Comey warned in stark terms against the push by technology companies to encrypt smartphone data and operating systems, arguing that murder cases could be stalled, suspects could walk free and justice could be thwarted by a locked phone or an encrypted hard drive.
Though privacy advocates and technology experts called the concerns exaggerated, Comey said, however, that new legislation to allow law enforcement to intercept communications is needed at a time of advancing technology and new forms of communication. “We have the legal authority to intercept and access communications from information pursuant to court order, but we often lack the technical ability to do so,” Comey said in a Brookings Institution speech.
Comey cited particular cases in which he said access to cellphone data aided in a criminal investigation. But in a question-and-answer session after the speech, he said he could not cite particular instances in which someone was rescued from danger who wouldn’t have been had law enforcement been blocked from that information. However he added that the logic tells him there are going to be cases just like that.”
The speech, which echoes concerns he and others in law enforcement have previously made, comes soon after announcements by Apple and Google that their new operating systems will be encrypted, or protected with coding by default. Law enforcement officials could still intercept conversations but might not be able to access call data, contacts, photos and email stored on the phone.