- The Washington Times - Friday, October 9, 2015

The Obama administration has abandoned for now its plans to put in place a law that would require Internet companies to give investigators access to encrypted messages, FBI Director James Comey told the Senate on Thursday.

But as mobile devices and applications marketed by the likes of Apple and Google continue to let millions of individuals around the globe obscure their communications from prying eyes with encryption that’s increasingly both ubiquitous and hard to crack, the government is not giving up just yet on figuring out a solution that satisfies law enforcement officials as well as tech companies and consumers, Mr. Comey said.

“The United States government is actively engaged with private companies to ensure they understand the public safety and national security risks that result from malicious actors’ use of their encrypted products and services. However, the administration is not seeking legislation at this time,” Mr. Comey testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday.

The White House’s decision was made during a cabinet meeting on Oct. 1, The Washington Post reported.

The decision puts a pause for now on months of debate concerning whether or not companies that provide platforms for digital communication — among them the makers of iPhone and Android devices — should weaken their security so that “encrypted” communications could be deciphered by authorities in the event of criminal investigations.

Billions of messages a day get transmitted that are “effectively warrant proof,” Kiran Raj, the senior counsel to the Justice Department’s deputy attorney general, said last month, because widely available commercial devices are providing strong encryption by default.

On Thursday, Mr. Comey said the widening gap with regards to intelligence gathering posed by this problem “must be addressed given the resulting risks are grave both in traditional criminal matters as well as in national security matters.”

“Unfortunately, changing forms of Internet communication and the use of encryption are posing real challenges to the FBI’s ability to fulfill its public safety and national security missions,” he said.

A solution so far has proven to be anything but easy. Computer scientists have said that deliberately developing communication platforms that can be exploited by law enforcement will be abused inevitably, and the Obama administration’s efforts thus far have drew fire from privacy advocates and security experts as well.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a California-based digital rights group, said Mr. Comey’s announcement signals a “partial victory for those of us fighting for strong, secure, private communications online.”

One day earlier, the CEO of an industry trade group that represents Facebook, Google and Microsoft, among others, wrote in a letter to the White House, “Regardless of good intentions, any efforts to undermine the security and effectiveness of strong encryption are misguided, shortsighted, impractical and ultimately counterproductive.”

National Security Council spokesman Mark Stroh told The Post on Thursday, “As the president has said, the United States will work to ensure that malicious actors can be held to account — without weakening our commitment to strong encryption.”

“As part of those efforts, we are actively engaged with private companies to ensure they understand the public safety and national security risks that result from malicious actors’ use of their encrypted products and services,” he said.

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