FBI Director James Comey publicly rebuked two of America's most prominent technology companies in a speech on encryption in Washington on Thursday, arguing that Apple and Google are potentially creating "a black hole for law enforcement."
At issue is the announcement by the two companies that new operating systems will encrypt data by default—meaning that Apple and Google could not respond to a legal warrant for access to a suspect's phone because they would not be able to break the encryption.
In remarks that were open to the public at the Brookings Institution, Comey said the heightened encryption is going to cause problems for the FBI as it tracks down criminals and terrorists.
"Both companies are run by good people, responding to what they perceive is a market demand," Comey said. "But the place they are leading us is one we shouldn't go to without careful thought and debate as a country."
Encryption, he said, "threatens to lead us all to a very dark place."
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Comey acknowledged that the companies are acting in the wake of the Edward Snowden disclosures about U.S. government spying by offering customers phones that will be resistant to the government's efforts to access data.
"Perhaps it's time to suggest that the post-Snowden pendulum has swung too far in one direction—in a direction of fear and mistrust," Comey said. "Are we so mistrustful of government—and of law enforcement—that we are willing to let bad guys walk away?"
Standing beneath a massive video screen displaying a custom hashtag for the event—#ComeyCrypto—the FBI director sought to find common ground with American companies.
"We understand the private sector's need to remain competitive in the global marketplace. And it isn't our intent to stifle innovation or undermine U.S. companies," Comey said. "But we have to find a way to help these companies understand what we need, why we need it and how they can help, while still protecting privacy rights and providing network security and innovation."
Comey also said his remarks were not an attack on the top executives of Google and Apple themselves. "I said it because I meant it," he said. "These companies are run by good people. And we know an adversarial posture won't take any of us very far down the road."
In response, Google issued a statement from a spokeswoman saying that Google still "intends" to make encryption available. "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."
And Google also said the government can get the same data elsewhere. "While we won't be able to provide encryption keys to unlock phone data directly," the statement said, "there are still a number of avenues to obtain data through legal channels."
A spokesperson for Apple did not respond to a request for comment.
In his speech, Comey cited four cases in which law enforcement was able to prosecute criminals on the basis of data intercepted from their mobile devices: information on the phone of a known sex offender who murdered a young boy; text messages that confirmed the parents' involvement in the death of their young daughter; text messages on phones of drug dealers leading to information about the structure of the group; and GPS data on a phone that identified a hit-and-run driver.
The emergence of Comey as a public figure in the administration's handling of the fallout from the Snowden disclosures may reflect an acknowledgement by government that the public may trust the FBI more than the National Security Agency.
Comey, in a question-and-answer session on stage, mused that the FBI may have a "better" brand than the NSA.