• United States



FBI chief claims encryption is an ‘urgent public safety issue’

Jan 10, 20184 mins

After 25 years of "going dark" claims, FBI Director Christopher Wray says not being able to crack the encryption on devices is "a major public safety issue."

If “Going Dark” were an actual thing, then surely the FBI would be completely blind by now. After all, the bureau has been harping on how it was “going dark” for 25 years! That’s right, the FBI started making claims about “going dark” due to encryption way back in 1993, according to Bruce Schneier.

That same year, the introduction of the “Clipper Chip” kicked off the first Crypto War. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. passed a wiretapping law — the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) of 1994.

Yet in 2018, the FBI chief is still talking about the “Going Dark problem” and the evils of encryption. In fact, according to FBI Director Christopher Wray, the use of unbreakable encryption is an “urgent public safety issue.”

Wray made the remarks yesterday at the International Conference on Cyber Security. At the conference, he revealed that during the last fiscal year, the FBI couldn’t crack the encryption and access the contents of 7,775 devices. That number was “more than half of all the devices we attempted to access.”

According to his prepared remarks, Wray said:

Being unable to access nearly 7,800 devices is a major public safety issue. That’s more than half of all the devices we attempted to access in that timeframe — and that’s just at the FBI. That’s not even counting a lot of devices sought by other law enforcement agencies — our state, local, and foreign counterparts. It also doesn’t count important situations outside of accessing a specific device, like when terrorists, spies, and criminals use encrypted messaging apps to communicate.

Wray later added, “While the FBI and law enforcement happen to be on the front lines of this problem, this is an urgent public safety issue for all of us. Because as horrifying as 7,800 in one year sounds, it’s going to be a lot worse in just a couple of years if we don’t find a responsible solution.”

The FBI doesn’t care about “the millions of devices of everyday citizens.” Instead, the bureau is “interested in the devices that are used to plan or execute terrorist or criminal activity” — devices that, despite tech tools and legal authority, agents cannot access due to encryption.

FBI director says tech firms need to cooperate

Wray renewed the call for tech companies to cooperate: “We need to work together to stay ahead of the threat and to adapt to changing technologies and their consequences — both expected and unexpected. Because at the end of the day, we all want the same thing: To protect our innovation, our systems, and, above all, our people.”

Yet building in backdoors to allow access to law enforcement is a “solution” that experts have long poked holes in; a backdoor could also be exploited by attackers to gain access.

Wray admitted that the solution “isn’t so clear-cut. It will require a thoughtful and sensible approach, and may vary across business models and technologies, but — and I can’t stress this enough — we need to work fast.”

Hmm, fast as in because the FBI is “going dark” like the agency has claimed for the last 25 years?

Wray also claimed, “We’re not looking for a ‘back door’ — which I understand to mean some type of secret, insecure means of access. What we’re asking for is the ability to access the device once we’ve obtained a warrant from an independent judge, who has said we have probable cause.”

What else would a way past unbreakable encryption be except a back door?

At the same, the FBI claims to support encryption.

“Let me be clear: The FBI supports information security measures, including strong encryption,” Wray said. “But information security programs need to be thoughtfully designed so they don’t undermine the lawful tools we need to keep this country safe.”

Any back door into devices is bad

The world is full of truly good people, truly bad people and an ocean of folks in between the two extremes. Granted, law enforcement sometimes does need a way to lawfully access content on locked phones. But let me be clear, any backdoor will weaken the security and privacy protections of every person online. Any backdoor into encryption will eventually be used by bad actors.

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.