Encryption is 'urgent public safety issue — Federal Bureau of Investigation chief

Christopher Wray's Official FBI Headshot

FBI Director Christopher Wray

FBI Director Christopher Wray stated Tuesday that the inability of law enforcement agencies to surpass the strong encryptions on electronic devices poses an "urgent public safety issue".

Talking at a cyber-security conference in NY recently, FBI's director said the Bureau was unable to access nearly 7,800 devices in the past year, despite having obtained legal rights to do so.

This was more than half of the devices the bureau tried to crack into.

This is not the first time Wray as FBI director, like his predecessors, has argued that encryption gets in the way of investigations. But while he says the Federal Bureau of Investigation supports strong encryption, he maintains it shouldn't undermine lawful access to the data.

He argued this was fast becoming an "urgent public safety issue" which would only get worse over time unless U.S. technology companies engineer a "responsible" solution. "It will require a thoughtful and sensible approach, and may vary across business models and technologies, but - and I can't stress this enough - we need to work fast".

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"Let me be clear: The FBI supports information security measures, including strong encryption". A solution requires "significant innovation", Wray said, "but I just do not buy the claim that it is impossible".

He gave the example of the Symphony messaging platform used by a number of major banks.

"So the four banks in charge of Symphony agreed to keep encrypted backups of every transaction for at least seven years", Wray said, and also retain decryption keys for every message in case authorities might need them.

"Because as horrifying as 7,800 in one year sounds, it's going to be a lot worse in just a couple of years if we don't find a responsible solution", he added.

The FBI director said he isn't pushing for a "backdoor", which he defined as a "secret, insecure means of access". The U.S. lawmakers also expressed little interest in implementing a legislation which would make companies manufacture products of which contents can be accessed by authorities after obtaining a warrant.

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This would put the privacy and security of hundreds of millions of devices potentially at risk if it fell into the wrong hands, and could even be abused by over-reaching law enforcers, whilst putting pressure on providers like Apple to do the same in countries with poor human rights records, the argument goes.

U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in October chastised technology companies for building strongly encrypted products, suggesting Silicon Valley is more willing to comply with foreign government demands for data than those made by their home country.

The government has said it is not interested in mandating the creation of backdoors, though like Wray it has a somewhat narrow definition of a backdoor.

"It might be requested with the very best of intentions and certainly fighting terrorism is a very important and a very noble goal, but there's this unintended effect of creating these vast exposures that are inevitably going to be exploited by some bad actor", Levy said.

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