FBI Director James Comey testified before members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, calling on tech companies to reevaluate their business models as encrypted communications are hindering law enforcements’ attempts to investigate crime.
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“From the FBI’s perspective we are increasingly seeing - inevitably we’ll see entirely - that criminals, and terrorists, and spies have an unparalleled ability to communicate with each other worldwide,” Comey said. “Increasingly we are unable to see what they say, which gives them a tremendous advantage against us.”
Encryption is the translation of data into a secret code which can only be decrypted with access via a secret “key code” or password. It is used to keep data users’ information safe or private. A court order is required by law enforcement officials to gain access to the data.
However, at times investigators face the challenge of accessing the information even with a court order.
Comey told lawmakers that technology systems and devices are designed in such a way that law enforcement official sometimes can’t comply with judges’ orders. He added that the government should not be telling companies how to operate their systems, nor does the government want a “backdoor” solution. But Comey hopes that companies can figure out a way to supply necessary information to help aid investigations.
“We understand that encryption is a very important part of being secure on the internet,” Comey said. “We see that encryption is getting in the way of our ability to have court orders effective to gather information we need in our most important work, and we all agree that we have to figure out whether we can maximize both of those values.” Tech companies and the FBI agree that privacy on the internet is of the upmost importance – it’s finding a solution to both sides’ needs that is the challenge.
Despite growing public safety concerns following terrorist attacks in Paris in November and San Bernardino, California, earlier this month, privacy advocates and tech companies continue to push back against pressure from the government to access encrypted data more easily.
Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) CEO Tim Cook says on the company’s website, “At Apple, your trust means everything to us. That’s why we respect your privacy and protect it with strong encryption, plus strict policies that govern how all data is handled.”
And on Wednesday Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg sounded off in a post saying he wants to "add my voice in support of Muslims in our community and around the world," adding "as the leader of Facebook I want you to know that you are always welcome here.”
Additionally, in an online petition to the White House, supporters of stronger encryption stated that “the government should not erode the security of our devices or applications, pressure companies to keep and allow government access to our data, mandate implementation of vulnerabilities or backdoors into products, or have disproportionate access to the keys to private data.”
White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Ed Felten and Special Assistant to the President and Cybersecurity Coordinator Michael Daniel responded to the petition stating that “this week, administration officials will sit down with the creators of this petition to hear directly from them about their priorities and concerns […] This conversation about encryption is also part of a broader conversation about what we, as a nation, can do to fight terrorism as it evolves online.”