The FBI vs. Encryption

James Comey FBI conference with American Flag

In keeping with recent tradition, FBI director James Comey is again in the news, arguing that the FBI is hampered in investigations by encryption, particularly on mobile devices. In recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Director Comey likened full disk encryption to a shadow falling over the work of the FBI.

During the testimony, several senators also mentioned various legal avenues aimed at getting information during investigations. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California currently has a bipartisan discussion draft of a bill, which would require technology companies to “provide such technical assistance as is necessary to obtain such information or data in an intelligible format or to achieve the purpose of the court order”. Effectively, such a measure would amount to either a backdoor to the encryption used on the device, or would prohibit encryption altogether. Director Comey was asked if he considered additional legislation necessary in order to permit access to encrypted data, but he would not confirm one way or another, and is instead attempting to collaborate with the technology industry to find a solution to the so-called problem of “going dark”.

The tussle between the mathematical realities of encryption and the FBI’s expressed desire to see whatever data it wants in cleartext is unlikely to go away soon. In fact, this week’s testimony by Director Comey is eerily similar to testimony given by then-Director Louis Freeh in 1997. Director Freeh described the soon-to-be ubiquitous use of encryption as the “looming specter” haunting law enforcement. While technology has changed rapidly over the course of the last 20 years, the FBI’s distaste for encryption apparently has not.