FBI Director Christopher A. Wray echoed Attorney General William P. Barr on Thursday by calling on tech companies to help solve investigative setbacks caused by criminals using encrypted devices and messaging platforms.
Mr. Wray made the plea while speaking at the International Conference on Cyber Security at Fordham University in New York, where Mr. Barr raised similar concerns during his keynote address earlier in the week.
“Cybersecurity is a central part of the FBI’s mission,” said Mr. Wray, according to his prepared remarks. “But as the attorney general discussed earlier this week, our request for lawful access cannot be considered in a vacuum. It’s got to be viewed more broadly, taking into account the American public’s interest in the security and safety of our society, and our way of life. That’s important because this is an issue that’s getting worse and worse all the time.”
“So to those resisting the need for lawful access, I would ask: What’s your solution? How do you propose to ensure that the hardworking men and women of law enforcement sworn to protect you and your families maintain lawful access to the information they need to do their jobs?” Mr. Wray asked.
The Department of Justice has wrestled for years with the so-called “going dark” problem created by criminals using encrypted devices and messengers to communicate off the radar of authorities, the likes of which worsened when Apple and Google began encrypting the data stored on their smartphones by default in 2014.
Opponents of ubiquitous encryption have favored implementing a way for law enforcement to decipher otherwise encrypted communications when necessary, such as with a warrant or court order. Cryptologists and computer scientists largely maintain that these “backdoors” created for authorities would be effectively insecure and inevitably exploited, however.
The “going dark” dilemma previously gained national attention in early 2016 when the FBI sued Apple in hopes of compelling the company to help authorities access data stored on an iPhone belonging to slain mass-shooting suspect, though the lawsuit was ultimately abandoned after investigators hired an outside firm to hack the device.
The FBI has since blamed encryption for preventing authorities from accessing data stored on thousands of lawfully seized devices, notwithstanding cybersecurity vendors continuing to offer phone-hacking services to government clients.
“Barely a week goes by in my job that I’m not confronted with an investigation impacted by this obstacle,” Mr. Wray said at Fordham. “So while we’re big believers in privacy and security, we also have a duty to protect the American people. That’s the way it’s always been in this country; no technological advance or company’s business model changes that fundamental precept.”
“There’s one thing I know for sure: It cannot be a sustainable end state for us to be creating an unfettered space that’s beyond lawful access for terrorists, hackers and child predators to hide. But that’s the path we’re on now, if we don’t come together to solve this problem,” Mr. Wray added.
Speaking at the same conference Tuesday, Mr. Barr complained about companies creating “warrant-proof” platforms and products that prevent authorities from lawfully and easily accessing and deciphering digital evidence, including encrypted data at rest and in transit.
“Obviously, the Department would like to engage with the private sector in exploring solutions that will provide lawful access,” Mr. Barr said, according to his prepared remarks. “While we remain open to a cooperative approach, the time to achieve that may be limited.”
President Trump, on his part, called for a boycott of Apple during the FBI standoff in 2016.
• Andrew Blake can be reached at email@example.com.
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