FBI Chief Admits It’s Impossible to Ban All Encryption

The government can at least make it harder to hide from surveillance, James Comey says.

FBI Director James Comey testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

FBI Director James Comey acknowledged Wednesday that determined terrorists and criminals will always have ways to hide their communications from the government.

Even if Congress requires U.S. tech companies to guarantee access to their devices and services, there will likely still be foreign companies that offer strong encryption, Comey said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. And sophisticated terrorists could even build their own encrypted-messaging apps, he admitted. Encryption scrambles communications, leaving only meaningless gibberish to anyone who doesn’t have the right “key” to unlock the message.

“I think there’s no way we solve this entire problem,” Comey acknowledged. “Encryption is always going to be available to the sophisticated user.”

The admission may seem to undermine Comey’s push for broader government access to data. But, according to the FBI chief, even though there’s no perfect solution, it’s still worth making it harder for terrorists to escape surveillance.

“The problem we face post-Snowden is, it’s moved from being available to the sophisticated bad guy to being the default. And so it’s affecting every criminal investigation. I agree there’s no way to solve this entire problem, but I still think it’s worth trying to solve a big chunk of it.”

Comey first began warning of the problem of criminals using encryption to “go dark” from surveillance in a speech last year. Companies shouldn’t offer services that make it impossible for them to respond to warrants or other legal orders for information, Comey has been arguing. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have created momentum on Capitol Hill to try to address the issue.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said during Wednesday’s hearing that she plans to introduce legislation along with Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, to “pierce” encryption. “I have concern about a PlayStation that my grandchildren might use and a predator getting on the other end, and talking to them, and it's all encrypted,” she said. “I think there really is reason to have the ability, with a court order, to be able to get into that.”

But tech companies and civil liberties advocates argue that encryption makes the Internet more secure. Any law requiring weaker encryption would make it easier for malicious hackers to steal sensitive information, they say.

Comey dismissed that argument Wednesday. “It’s not a security issue. It’s a business-model issue,” he said, arguing that consumers should pressure tech companies to help the government catch criminals and terrorists.