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Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI Director James Comey characterized the current debate surrounding encryption as a “business model question.” Comey informed the committee that he had numerous talks with members of the tech industry and it has convinces him of two things, which are both “good news.”

The first thing his talks with industry insiders convinced him of, is that the tech industry and law enforcement are “not at war.” He claims both groups are concerned about security on the internet, of which encryption is a key part, and they are also concerned with public safety. He says that tech industry insiders agree that there is tension between the two concerns, and they must work together to figure out how to balance internet security and public safety.

The second thing he learned from his talks is that, “It’s not a technical issue.” He mentions that there are numerous companies which provide encrypted communications, but are able to give police access to those communications in cooperation with a warrant. He insists that the government doesn’t want a backdoor, it just wants the tech companies themselves to be able to circumvent encryption so they can provide the data to law enforcement. He goes on to say that this is a “business model question” rejecting the idea that there could be any legitimate security reasons for tech companies to offers encrypted communications that even they can’t break. He asks, “should they change their business model,” and suggests that this is a serious question that the Senate must consider.

Republican Senator Mike Lee had some questions for Comey. After confirming that Comey was not seeking a backdoor for the government, he then asked if tech companies would have to create a backdoor for their  internal use in order to comply with warrants. Comey tries to sidestep the question saying, “I don’t know what in that context the term backdoor means,” and states that companies will have to figure out for themselves the best way to comply with a judge’s orders.

Lee continues his questioning with a hypothetical scenario where some or perhaps all American tech companies create backdoors and are able to comply with lawful warrants, and then asks, “That wouldn’t necessarily solve the going dark problem, would it?” Lee goes on to mention that tech companies outside the US can still offer unbreakable encryption. Comey states that it will require an international solution in order to solve this problem, and hopes that the “rule of law nations” can come together to determine the “rules of the road” regarding encryption.

After further questioning from Lee, who suggests that a person with technical skills who is determined to “go dark” will be able to do so even if there isn’t a commercially available app to do so, Comey ultimately admits that there is no way to completely solve the problem, but he is interested in solving a “big chunk of it.” Lee concludes by bringing up concerns that American companies could potentially lose business to tech companies in other countries, if a law is passed mandating backdoors. He states this is something to be aware of since such a law “wouldn’t necessarily fix the problem.”

During the hearing, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein mentioned that she and Republican Senator Richard Burr are working on legislation to deal with encryption. She mentioned her fears relating to encryption stating, “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. I think there really is reason to have the ability, with a court order, to be able to get into that.” Comey apparantly agreed with Feinstein stating, “I would very much like to get to a world where if a judge issues an order, companies are able to comply with it. Either to unlock a device, or to provide the communications between terrorists or between drug dealers or kidnappers. I very much would like to see that.”

Is Congress going to mandate backdoors, or will opposition stop the legislation in its tracks? Leave your comment below.

Max Michael

Senior Writer

I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.