Companies like Apple Inc. and Google Inc. should be required to build surveillance capabilities into their products to help law enforcement with their probes, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Providers of new communication services should create a “front door” method to intercept data as certain technology isn’t covered by legislation that requires telecom companies to have monitoring capabilities, FBI Director James Comey said yesterday at a Brookings Institution event in Washington.
“We are struggling to keep up with changing technology and maintain our ability to actually collect communications we are authorized to collect,” Comey said.
His comments add to tensions between law enforcement and technology companies trying to stand up for the privacy rights of their users. Google and Apple recently ratcheted up encryption on their mobile devices to improve security, a move the FBI, the U.S. Attorney General and police officials have said makes it harder to investigate crimes ranging from child abuse to drug trafficking.
Technology has become “the tool of choice” for terrorists and other dangerous criminals and default encryption settings on devices and networks are becoming an obstacle for law enforcement, Comey said.
President Barack Obama’s administration and lawmakers have discussed a possible update to the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act. Law enforcement groups such as the International Association of Police Chiefs want Congress to revise the law to compel more companies providing communications services to build interception tools that let agencies conduct surveillance with court orders.
The administration also has considered whether to seek fines or develop incentives in order to get companies such as Microsoft Corp. and Google to ensure access to data for investigations.
Last month, Google and Apple announced that their newest smartphones will automatically encrypt data stored on them, essentially shielding photos, documents and contact lists from the prying eyes of government or hackers. The new phones will automatically scramble data so that a digital key kept by the owner is needed to unlock it, making it harder for detectives to examine the content of suspects’ phones without their knowledge or cooperation.
Technology companies have been trying to restore their reputations after revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that they cooperated with government spying programs in the past.
Some data security experts, including Jonathan Turley, a constitutional-law professor at The George Washington University Law School, say assertions that new technology hampers law enforcement are exaggerated because police can still obtain evidence through traditional court warrants. Much of the data sent to or from the devices can also still be captured and investigators can hack software to collect evidence.
“Now, more than ever, we need strong security to combat malicious hackers and deter overly intrusive government surveillance,” Nuala O’Connor, president of the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, said in response to Comey’s speech yesterday. “Law enforcement already has many legitimate ways to obtain the data stored on our devices,” O’Connor said in a statement.
National security and law enforcement officials have warned for years that new technology prevents agencies from being able to obtain e-mails and other electronic communications needed for legitimate investigations. They refer to it as the challenge of “going dark.”
“If the challenges of real time data interception threatened to leave us in the dark, encryption threatens to lead us all to a very dark place,” Comey said.
Technology companies have argued that being required to have intercept capabilities in their products could cost them customers, expose them to liability, open them up to cyber attacks and force them to reconfigure products that keeps user data anonymous.
“People previously used safes and combination locks to keep their information secure -- now they use encryption,” Niki Christoff, a spokeswoman for Google, said earlier this month. Matt Kallman, a spokesman, declined to comment further yesterday.
Colin Johnson, a spokesman for Apple, declined to comment beyond pointing out a public statement by Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook.
“We have never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services,” Cook wrote in the online posting. “We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will.”
Comey said there are public misconceptions about how much data law enforcement agencies like the FBI has access to and that criminals take advantage of the government’s surveillance limits.
“If a suspected criminal is in the car and he switches from cellular coverage to WiFi, we may be out of luck,” he said. “We may not have the ability to switch between devices, methods and networks. The bad guys know this.”