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 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