Encryption Is 'Depressing,' the FBI Says

The FBI is not giving up on encryption backdoors.

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May 21 2015, 4:37pm

Image: Brookings Institution/Flickr

On Tuesday, pretty much everyone from the tech industry, including giants such as Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft, sent a letter to President Barack Obama to tell him to say no to any request to weaken encryption to make life easier to law enforcement agencies.

Perhaps predictably, the letter didn't sit well on the law enforcement side of the encryption debate, which has been going on in Washington DC for months now, ever since Apple announced that data stored on the new iPhone would be encrypted by default and inaccessible even to Apple.

At an event on Wednesday, according to a transcript, FBI Director James Comey said that he "frankly" found the letter "depressing."

"I read this letter and I think, 'Either these folks don't see what I see or they're not fair-minded,'" he said. "And either one of those things is depressing to me."

"'Either these folks don't see what I see or they're not fair-minded."

Comey has been the most outspoken critic of Apple's decision, repeatedly asking tech companies to come up with a solution—hinting that otherwise he'll force them to—so that the FBI and cops don't face a situation in which they can't access key evidence during investigations, a problem the FBI calls "going dark."

Referring to Comey's comments, Matt Blaze, an associate professor in computer science at Penn and a respected cybersecurity and cryptography expert, wrote on Twitter that he missed the times when "the FBI didn't accuse entire tech community of being dishonest."

An FBI spokesperson declined to elaborate on what Comey said. "I think his remarks speak for themselves," the spokesperson told Motherboard in an email.

So far, the FBI, and any other government agency, has failed to put forward a concrete, detailed proposal of what exactly the tech companies should do.

Meanwhile, security and cryptography experts have been critical of the FBI's ideas, arguing that there's no way to make a completely secure, encrypted system while also giving somebody—in this case cops and feds—a way to circumvent it, or a backdoor. Because if somebody can circumvent it, then malicious hackers or criminals can too.

Yet, on Wednesday, Comey doubled down and accused the tech industry of failing to see the problem, while admitting that he doesn't "know the answer."

"Their letter contains no acknowledgment that there are societal costs to universal encryption."

"Their letter contains no acknowledgment that there are societal costs to universal encryption," Comey said, presumably referring to what he previously called "a very dark place" where authorities can't access information and save lives because of encryption.

Comey also seemed to embrace an argument made by Daniel Conley, the Suffolk County District Attorney in Massachusetts in a Congressional hearing in late April, where he said that there must be a way to put backdoors into software.

"Technical people will say it's too hard," Comey said. " My reaction to that is: Really? Too hard? Too hard for the people we have in this country to figure something out? I'm not that pessimistic."