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Privacy Advocates Don't Buy FBI's Warning About Encryption Practices

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The FBI director delivered a warning this week. James Comey's agency is a key part of this country's national security establishment. He took over just as the U.S. government was being criticized for spying on so many phone calls and emails. But in his first major policy speech, Comey raised the opposite concern. He says sophisticated new encryption techniques could lock out law enforcement trying to solve crimes.

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JAMES COMEY: We are struggling to keep up with changing technology and to maintain our ability to actually collect the communications we are authorized to collect.

WERTHEIMER: His statement prompted a sharp debate with privacy advocates. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The FBI director didn't mince words in his address at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

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COMEY: Encryption threatens to lead us all to a very, very dark place.

JOHNSON: James Comey says the skies got even darker after Apple and Google announced new encryption practices, practices that keep data secret even from the companies themselves. The companies say those changes will maximize their customer security and privacy. But Comey says the advances can come at the expense of law enforcement.

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COMEY: Those charged with protecting our people aren't always able to access the evidence we need to prosecute crime and prevent terrorism, even with lawful authority.

JOHNSON: The FBI director says Americans were justifiably surprised at the scope of U.S. surveillance exposed by NSA leaker Edward Snowden. But he says the pendulum has now swung too far in the other direction.

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COMEY: Have we become so mistrustful of government, and law enforcement in particular, that we are willing to let bad guys walk away, willing to leave victims in search of justice?

JOHNSON: Comey offered no specific policy or legislative proposals. But he appeared to want to persuade U.S. technology companies to build a front door into smartphones and other devices, a front door the FBI could walk through. That idea didn't sit well with Chris Soghoian of the ACLU.

CHRIS SOGHOIAN: Whether you want to call it a front door or a back door, if these companies are delivering end-to-end encrypted communications, the only logical way to provide law enforcement access is to escrow a key. And if the keys are there, whether they are in law enforcement hands, a third party or in the company's hands, people will try and steal them.

JOHNSON: That fear is real, too, Soghoian says, since foreign governments have already found a way to hack into major American tech companies. For its part, Google says encryption is the 21st-century way of protecting personal documents, the modern version of safes and combination locks. And a Google spokesman says the FBI can still get data through other channels. Greg Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology raised another question. Nojeim asked the FBI director about the international implications about his idea about a built-in front door.

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GREG NOJEIM: If you're Apple or you're selling Androids, you can't sell an NSA, FBI-ready iPhone in Europe. So what are you going to do? Are you expecting them to build two kinds of iPhones?

JOHNSON: Comey replied that he's open to having a conversation about how American companies could do more to comply with law enforcement, or to Congress forcing companies to do just that. For longtime privacy advocates, Comey's speech amounted to a message they've heard before.

About 20 years ago, Congress debated whether telecommunications companies had to build in access for law enforcement. More recently, Comey's predecessor, Robert Mueller, also put the idea on his legislative wish list, but it went nowhere in Congress. And then came Edward Snowden's revelations about mass surveillance by the NSA. Now, back in the U.S. government after a break in the private sector, Comey says it's time to jumpstart the conversation.

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COMEY: But I see a problem that when I last left government, it was blinking red kind of in the distance in the corner my eye. It's now blinking red directly in front of me. And I want to make sure that we don't ever get to a place where people then say to me, how did this happen?

JOHNSON: Comey has nine more years in his term as FBI director to try to solve that problem. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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