(Bloomberg) -- FBI Director James Comey told U.S. lawmakers Wednesday that law enforcement can’t access encrypted platforms that are being used by Islamic State to recruit lone-wolf terrorists.
“This is not your grandfather’s al-Qaeda,” Comey told lawmakers during a Senate hearing. He said Islamic State is reaching out to 21,000 English-speaking followers on Twitter and other social-media networks and then directing them to encrypted messaging applications that his agency can’t access.
Companies such as Apple Inc. and Google Inc. are using harder-to-crack encryption in smartphones to protect user data and privacy, but the tools are also impeding criminal and law enforcement investigations into terrorists, Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“We’re not seeking special law enforcement access to any information,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates testified. While the government already has the legal authority to obtain electronic information using court warrants, some encryption technology can make data available only to the user. Yates said that the government wants companies to retain some capability to access encrypted data of users.
In a Senate intelligence committee hearing later, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, suggested that legislation could compel technology companies that don’t voluntarily keep a key to customers’ encrypted data.
Technology companies are working to block federal efforts to deliberately weaken encryption -- a method of scrambling data so it’s only accessible with a special key -- that protects e-mails, social media posts, instant messages and text messages.
They say revelations of government spying in documents leaked by former U.S. contractor Edward Snowden have eroded consumer confidence in the security of their products and will cost more than $35 billion in lost sales and contracts by 2016, according to a report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
Under the Obama administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency have called for government access to encrypted communications. Yates said Wednesday that the government doesn’t want the technology industry to build defects or “backdoors” into products to allow law enforcement access.
Comey also testified before the Senate intelligence committee later Wednesday. He said that ramping up encryption technology comes at the expense of public safety. Law enforcement can access online communications with a warrant.
“We cannot break strong encryption,” Comey said. It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack, he said, but “the needle at that point goes invisible.”
In another analogy, Comey compared law enforcement’s struggle to access encrypted information to a safe or closet that can’t be broken into. This makes it particularly difficult for the agency to intercept communications between Islamic State and Americans vulnerable to recruitment.
It’s “a process that increasingly takes part through mobile messaging apps that are end-to-end encrypted, communications that may not be intercepted despite judicial orders under the Fourth Amendment,” Comey wrote in an op-ed published Monday on a national security research institutes’s blog.
A group of code specialists in a paper released Tuesday argued that allowing law enforcement access to encrypted communications would compromise data security.
“These proposals are unworkable in practice, raise enormous legal and ethical questions, and would undo progress on security at a time when Internet vulnerabilities are causing extreme economic harm,” the group wrote.
In a letter sent to Senate leaders on June 25, Microsoft Corp., Yahoo! Inc. and Google urged lawmakers to pursue legislation that would allow foreigners to sue the U.S. government when online communications are improperly seized by law enforcement, a right already granted to U.S. citizens.
Several technology companies, including Apple and Google, have beefed up encryption on smartphones to protect users’ data and ensure privacy.
“Strong encryption is the cornerstone of the modern information economy’s security,” more than 150 companies, groups and experts wrote to President Barack Obama on May 19.
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