The director of the FBI has reiterated his belief that law enforcement needs increased access to encrypted communications data to be effective in combating terrorism.
FBI director James Comey addressed a Senate Intelligence Committee to explain how strong encryption is proving unbreakable and that interception tools currently provided to the security services are inadequate.
Comey said that private messaging apps that encrypt data help terrorists such as Islamic State (IS) to organise and carry out operations that could harm the public.
“Our job is to look at a haystack the size of this country for needles that are increasingly invisible to us because of end-to-end encryption,” he told the panel of senators.
"I am finding that the tools we are being asked to use are increasingly ineffective in our national security work and our criminal work.
“Technology has moved to a place where encryption, which was always available over the last 20 years, has become the default. That change has been accompanied by an explosion of apps that ride on the internet and offer end-to-end encrypted communication.”
The popularity of social media platforms and applications including WhatsApp and Snapchat that encrypt as default, have given terrorists a place to gather and discuss their plans in secret, the director argued.
“Social media companies are worth billions of dollars because pushing to someone’s pocket, whether you’re selling shoes, cars or terror, it works,” he claimed.
"IS has invested in this for about the last year. They have about 21,000 English language followers right now and they are pushing this message.
“It’s as if a devil sits on someone’s shoulder all day long saying ‘kill, kill, kill’. The terrorist, if you want to talk to them, is right there in your device.”
In spite of his determination Comey did not produce any concrete figures to back up these claims when questioned by Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein. Instead, he said that the FBI does not currently collect this data.
Comey’s Senate appearance comes a day after a group of 14 world-renowned cryptographers and security experts released the Keys Under Doormats report which warned that giving a government access to encrypted communications data will result in substantial security risks, engineering costs and collateral damage.
“Our strong recommendation is that anyone proposing regulations should first present concrete technical requirements which industry, academics and the public can analyse for technical weaknesses and hidden costs,” the experts said.
The paper claimed that recent government demands in the UK and US will result in substantial security risks, engineering costs and collateral damage.
"We find that it would pose far more grave security risks, imperil innovation and raise thorny issues for human rights and international relations," the experts said.
The document also suggested that government proposals for increased access are unworkable in practice and raise ethical and legal questions.
"Our strong recommendation is that anyone proposing regulations should first present concrete technical requirements which industry, academics and the public can analyse for technical weaknesses and hidden costs," it said.
One major problem with inserting exceptional access into systems is an increase in complexity, which the report argued will increase vulnerability.
"To achieve widespread exceptional access, new technology features would have to be deployed and tested with literally hundreds of thousands of developers all around the world. This is a far more complex environment than the electronic surveillance now deployed," the paper said.
The experts concluded by saying that technological innovation could be stunted by these government proposals.
"Diminishing or displacing innovation may have consequences for economic growth and national security," they wrote.
"Even as citizens need law enforcement to protect themselves in the digital world, all policy makers, companies, researchers, individuals and law enforcement [agencies] have an obligation to make our global information infrastructure more secure, trustworthy and resilient."
The researchers reconvened after first working together in 1997 on the similar Clapper Clip proposals which would have resulted in the creators of all strong encryption systems being forced to provide access keys to a ‘trusted third party' which could turn them over when authorised.
UK prime minister David Cameron recently revived the so-called Snoopers' Charter, the Draft Communications Data Bill, which will force communications providers to intercept, monitor and retain data.
Cameron has also indicated that private messaging services such as WhatsApp and Snapchat could be banned.
Encryption has been on the agenda ever since ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden released US national security documents that detailed controversial surveillance programmes such as PRISM and XKeyScore.
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