Technology

The FBI Wants Internet Wiretapping Powers

Despite privacy fears following the Snowden leaks, the FBI director says new spying powers are necessary to catch criminals.

The new iPhone 6 is displayed during an Apple special event at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts on September 9, 2014 in Cupertino, California. Apple unveiled the Apple Watch wearable tech and two new iPhones, the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.
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Brendan Sasso
Oct. 16, 2014, 7:51 a.m.

The FBI is ask­ing Con­gress to give it new powers to force tech­no­logy com­pan­ies to turn over private in­form­a­tion on their cus­tom­ers.

FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey warned Thursday that new tech­no­lo­gies are mak­ing it easy for crim­in­als to hide in­crim­in­at­ing in­form­a­tion from po­lice.

“The FBI has a sworn duty to keep every Amer­ic­an safe from crime and ter­ror­ism, and tech­no­logy has be­come the tool of choice for some very dan­ger­ous people,” Comey said in a speech at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. “Un­for­tu­nately, the law hasn’t kept pace with tech­no­logy, and this dis­con­nect has cre­ated a sig­ni­fic­ant pub­lic -safety prob­lem.”

A 1994 law, the Com­mu­nic­a­tions As­sist­ance for Law En­force­ment Act, forces tele­phone com­pan­ies to build sur­veil­lance tech­no­lo­gies in­to their net­works to al­low law en­force­ment to in­stall wireta­ps. But the law hasn’t been up­dated and doesn’t cov­er new on­line forms of com­mu­nic­a­tion.

So even with a court or­der, po­lice are strug­gling to get the in­form­a­tion they need to in­vest­ig­ate sus­pec­ted mur­der­ers, drug deal­ers, and kid­nap­pers, Comey said.

The FBI dir­ect­or urged Con­gress to up­date the law to “cre­ate a level play­ing field” so that com­pan­ies like Google have to provide po­lice the same ac­cess to in­form­a­tion that AT&T and oth­er phone pro­viders do.

In the af­ter­math of Ed­ward Snowden’s dis­clos­ures about the Na­tion Se­cur­ity Agency’s sweep­ing spy­ing pro­grams, the pub­lic and mem­bers of Con­gress have been more fo­cused on lim­it­ing gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance than ex­pand­ing it.

But Comey ar­gued that the “post-Snowden pen­du­lum has swung too far in one dir­ec­tion,” and that it’s time to have “open and hon­est de­bates about liberty and se­cur­ity.”

For sev­er­al years, the FBI has been warn­ing about the prob­lem of new tech­no­lo­gies al­low­ing crim­in­als to “go dark.” But Comey ex­plained that his new push was promp­ted by the de­cisions by Apple and Google to provide de­fault en­cryp­tion on their phones that will make it im­possible to un­lock them for po­lice, even when faced with a court or­der.

In a state­ment, a Google spokes­per­son said that “en­cryp­tion is simply the 21st cen­tury meth­od of pro­tect­ing per­son­al doc­u­ments, and we in­tend to provide this ad­ded se­cur­ity to our users while giv­ing law en­force­ment ap­pro­pri­ate ac­cess when presen­ted with a war­rant.”

“While we won’t be able to provide en­cryp­tion keys to un­lock phone data dir­ectly, there are still a num­ber of av­en­ues to ob­tain data through leg­al chan­nels,” the com­pany spokes­per­son said.

Se­cur­ity ex­perts warn that any back­door that com­pan­ies are forced to build in­to their net­works and devices could be ex­ploited by hack­ers.

“I think we’re go­ing to call it the FBI’s ‘Cy­ber In­sec­ur­ity Ini­ti­at­ive,’ ” said Greg No­jeim, seni­or coun­sel at the Cen­ter for Demo­cracy and Tech­no­logy. “Comey has called for less se­cure cell phones, and less se­cure net­works. If he gets his way, the bad guys will ex­ploit both.”

Comey said he isn’t “seek­ing a back­door ap­proach” but in­stead wants to “use the front door, with clar­ity and trans­par­ency, and with clear guid­ance provided by law.”

But he ad­mit­ted that any vul­ner­ab­il­ity could po­ten­tially be ex­ploited by hack­ers so there is “some risk as­so­ci­ated” with his plan.

“Giv­en the oth­er risks in­volved, it makes sense,” he said.

— This story was up­dated with a com­ment from Google

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