In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on December 9, FBI Director James Comey said that tech firms offering end-to-end encryption should reconsider “their business model.” Despite the lack of explicit evidence that the terrorists of Paris and San Bernardino used encryption to mount their attacks, Comey is asking that they instead adopt techniques that open a “back door” access so that law enforcement agencies can monitor private communications.
 
Since the revelations of mass surveillance by the Federal government following the release of classified information by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, users have increasingly taken recourse to end-to-end encryption. Snowden famously released classified information that revealed high levels of surveillance by the United States and the United Kingdom. Fleeing the US, Snowden currently resides in Russia.
 
In July of this year, Comey had argued before the same committee that tech firms should offer a “solution” so that government can access information without endangering security. At the December 9 hearing, Comey said of the demand, “It is a business model question…The question we have to ask is: Should they change their business model?”
 
Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates said in a July hearing that legislation “may ultimately be necessary” to compel tech companies to comply with information requests. However, she insisted that was not the Department of Justice’s wish. 
 
Comey told committee members that the solution to the problem posed to law enforcers by end-to-end encryption on mobile devices is not technical but a business solution. "There are plenty of companies today that provide secure services to their customers and still comply with court orders," Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
 
Echoing Comey’s statements was Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Feinstein said “If there is a conspiracy going on” among terrorists veiling their communications, “that encryption ought to be able to be pierced.” Feinstein is Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, while also sitting on the Judiciary Committee.

On behalf of the Obama administration, Comey has been outspoken in bringing to an end to he calls the "going dark": in which law enforcement are shut out of encrypted communications when it is only the end users who hold the key. Even with a court order, end users can shut out government eavesdropping.
 
Comey did admit that there may be some applications for Internet encryption. "I think there's no way we solve this entire problem," Comey said. "Encryption is always going to be available to the sophisticated user. The problem we face post-Snowden is it's moved from being available to the sophisticated bad guy to being the default. So it's now affecting every criminal investigation that folks engage in."
 
Google and Apple, among other companies, are offering encryption on devices such as iPhones. This means that they have no way to access customers’ communications content. Privacy activists and others have criticized Comey and his demands for backdoor access, contending that it would make Internet users vulnerable.
 
At the December 9 hearing, Comey said one of the two men who opened fire at an event in Garland TX earlier this year sent 109 encrypted messages to an "overseas terrorist" beforehand. Since the government cannot access the contents of those messages, Comey cited this as an example of the need for a backdoor access. In October, Comey said that the Obama administration would no longer seek legislative action to address the “going dark” issue. Sen. Feinstein, however, said at that time that she would pursue legislation to provide access to encrypted communications for law enforcement.
 
Comey said that encrypted apps will not cease to exist, but identified encryption “by default” as the most salient issue. Speaking to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Comey said “I think there’s no way we solve this entire problem. … The sophisticated user could still find a way.”

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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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