The FBI Director Thinks a Law Against Encryption Is Possible Under Trump

The director of the FBI James Comey once again leaves the door open for a law that forces tech companies to put backdoors into their products.

|
May 3 2017, 4:56pm

Image: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In the a year after the heated battle between Apple and the FBI over the iPhone of a dead alleged terrorist, the US government war on encryption has been lying somewhat dormant. But that's not because the FBI has given up on trying to change the status quo.

On Wednesday, FBI Director James Comey left the door open for a law that would require tech manufacturers like Apple or Google to come up with a way to decrypt data for the feds.

Read more: How the Government Is Waging Crypto War 2.0

"I could imagine a world that ends up with legislation saying if you are going to make devices in the United States you figure out how to comply with court orders," Comey said during a Senate hearing. "Or maybe we don't go there."

Comey's comment came after Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) asked whether the FBI director still believed that it wasn't necessary to push for a law to solve the so-called "Going Dark" problem—an FBI expression that refers to the rise of unbreakable encryption and how that is stumping legitimate investigations.

"It may require a legislative solution at some point."

During his prepared statements, Comey complained that the FBI has been unable to unlock and access data on more than 3,000, or 46 percent, of all the cellphones or mobile devices they had lawful authority to search during the first half of this year.

"The shadow created by the problem called going dark continues to fall across more and more of our work," Comey said, blaming the "ubiquitous default full disk encryption on devices," while at the same time saying he doesn't want backdoors.

Full disk encryption is a technology that makes it theoretically impossible to access data stored inside cellphones like newer Android phones or iPhones unless one has the decryption key or passcode. Sometimes, like in the case of the iPhone used by the alleged terrorist who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, it's possible to get around this by hacking into the phone.

"I could imagine a world that ends up with legislation saying if you are going to make devices in the United States you figure out how to comply with court orders."

In 2014, Apple made full disk encryption on iPhones a default setting, making it virtually impossible for anyone, including the company itself, to unlock or decrypt the user's data.

So is the FBI going to push for a law to solve this "big problem" as Comey put it? Maybe.

"I don't know the answer yet. I think I said—I hope I said—last time we talked about this, it may require a legislative solution at some point," Comey said. "The Obama administration was not in a position where they were seeking legislation. I don't know yet how President Trump intends to approach this. I know he spoke about it during the campaign, I know he cares about it, but it's premature for me to say."

Some legislators didn't seem too keen on going down that road. After Comey's remarks, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said he was convinced there was no need for a "one-size-fits-all" legislative fix, and that it'd be better for the FBI to figure things out directly with tech companies.

While Comey's remarks are—as usual—somewhat vague, they once again show that the FBI considers encryption a serious problem that's preventing agents to get access to more and more devices every day. For Comey, that needs to change somehow.

Subscribe to Science Solved It , Motherboard's new show about the greatest mysteries that were solved by science.