FBI chief warns encryption makes Islamic State attacks more likely

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 08, 2015 12:54 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Preventing law enforcement authorities from having access to encrypted communications would make it easier for sympathizers of Islamic State militants to carry out an attack in the United States, FBI Chief James Comey said on Wednesday.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is pushing technology companies to let law enforcement authorities have access to encrypted communications to investigate illegal activities. Those companies have resisted, arguing that building in such access would undermine encryption and weaken systems against criminals and computer hackers.

Comey told a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that Islamic State, also known by the acronym ISIL, is imploring supporters through Twitter to carry out attacks. Related conversations often take place via secure mobile communications that cannot be penetrated by law enforcement.

"The tools we are asked to use are increasingly ineffective," Comey said. "ISIL says go kill, go kill...we are stopping these things so far...but it is incredibly difficult. I cannot see me stopping these indefinitely."

Comey and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates rejected the notion that the government is seeking backdoor access to encrypted communications.

"We are not seeking a front door, back door, or any kind of door...but we are seeking to work with the industry," Yates said. She urged Congress to work with Silicon Valley and said they were looking to tailor solutions to individual companies.

Yates said that some technology companies can already access users' encrypted information, in order to sell advertisements. She said law enforcement authorities wanted to gain access to that.

An industry association which represents major software and hardware companies reiterated its stance against government access.

"Weak encryption is essentially no encryption, leaving all consumers vulnerable to breaches of privacy and cybercrime," the group said in a statement. "We therefore caution the administration against pursuing policies that encourage or require companies to weaken encryption technologies."

Last month, the group warned President Barack Obama and other U.S. agency heads, including Comey, against encryption.

On Tuesday, a prominent group of computer scientists released a report rebutting U.S. and British government proposals for exceptional access. They said that any special unlocking key in government or company hands could be hacked or abused.

(Reporting by Lindsay Dunsmuir; Editing by Christian Plumb and Grant McCool)