December 6, 2014

You'd think this would go without saying. In fact, you'd think these companies would aggressively be marketing their products as ones that don't invite the NSA, FBI or random hackers into their phones and other devices, right?


In a speech from mid-October, Comey warned that the FBI was in danger of "going dark," or being technically unable to access evidence on newly encrypted phones and computers. "The more we as a society rely on these devices, the more important they are to law enforcement and public safety officials," he said. Not long before, Apple and Google had announced that they would start encrypting iOS and Android user data by default, a decision that didn't sit well with Comey. In response, he proposed an update to the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which requires telecommunications companies to provide wiretap access for targeted surveillance. It's a fight the government has picked before and lost (with the Crypto Wars), and the FBI didn't seem likely to do much better this time around. But Wyden is hoping to shut the proposal down before it manages to get off the ground.

Where Comey sees a targeted exception, Wyden and others see a backdoor in device security — a vulnerability that would defeat the purpose of user encryption and could be coopted by other hackers. Comey protested that the NSA leaks have given Americans an unrealistic idea of how far government surveillance powers reach, but Wyden says his bill is a way to rebuild trust in American technology companies, something that's been undeniably shaken by the information Edward Snowden leaked over the past year. The FBI declined to comment on the bill, but a spokesperson referred us to a portion of Comey's statement earlier this year: "There is a misconception that building a lawful intercept solution into a system requires a so-called 'back door,' one that foreign adversaries and hackers may try to exploit. But that isn't true. We aren't seeking a back-door approach. We want to use the front door, with clarity and transparency, and with clear guidance provided by law."

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