FBI Director James Comey on Wednesday called on Congress to pass legislation that would undermine the ability of Americans to securely communicate.
Calling the use of encrypted phones and computers a “huge problem” and an affront to the “rule of law,” Comey, painted an apocalyptic picture of the world if the communications technology isn’t banned.
“We’re drifting to a place where a whole lot of people are going to look at us with tears in their eyes,” he told the House Appropriations Committee, describing a hypothetical in which a kidnapped young girl’s phone is discovered but can’t be unlocked.
A frequent and vociferous critic of encryption, Comey was testifying before the panel about the FBI’s fiscal year 2016 budget request.
A number of tech companies are providing consumers with encrypted devices and online communication platforms, in the wake of 2013 revelations about US government mass surveillance. In Apple’s latest iPhone 6, encryption is included as a default option
In some cases, the encryption is billed as so secure, companies claim to be unable to crack it for themselves, let alone law enforcement.
“Tech execs say privacy should be the paramount virtue,” Comey continued, “When I hear that I close my eyes and say try to image what the world looks like where pedophiles can’t be seen, kidnapper can’t be seen, drug dealers can’t be seen.”
Comey admitted that he’s not in a position where he can offer “a percentage or number” of cases affected by encrypted devices, but he claimed that the bureau encounters such technology in “all of our work.”
“It will only become worse and worse,” he added, before turning to lawmakers and enlisting their help.
“I think it’s going to require some sort of legislative fix,” Comey said.
Honing in on tech companies, Comey warned, “if you want to do business in this country, we’re about the rule of law.”
“To have a zone privacy that’s outside the reach of law is very concerning,” he claimed.
Lawmakers were mostly in agreement with the FBI Director
“They’ve created a monster that will harm law enforcement, national security, and everything else in this country,” Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) said, referring to companies like Apple.
“The people we represent have some interest in privacy, which is why these companies are trying to produce a product that gives them that privacy,” Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) said. “But we also need to protect public safety,” he added.
Late last year, Comey claimed that encrypted devices threaten to “lead us all to a very, very dark place.” His concerns have been echoed by the director of the National Security Agency, Adm. Mike Rogers, and White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
When pressed, however, officials have been unable to detail how law enforcement should have access to encrypted devices. Experts have noted that a blanket ban on encryption would leave users vulnerable to all kinds of malicious actors—state and non-state, foreign and domestic.