October 16, 2014 / 4:53 PM / 5 years ago

FBI director warns new phone encryption could thwart probes

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. FBI Director James Comey on Thursday made his strongest comments yet about encryption features built into new cell phones by Google Inc (GOOGL.O) and Apple Inc (AAPL.O), warning they could hurt law enforcement efforts to crack homicide and child exploitation cases.

FBI Director James Comey testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation" on Capitol Hill in Washington May 21, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Speaking before an audience at the Brookings Institution think tank, Comey said the new phones, which limit the ability for the companies themselves to access data stored on the units, have “the potential to create a black hole for law enforcement.”

FBI agents are generally able to access information stored on cell phones with a court order related to a specific investigation that forces the company to retrieve the information.

But handset makers have marketed more secure cell phones amid concerns of broad government surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden, and of hackers who might be able to exploit any vulnerabilities in the security of the phones.

In a statement, a Google spokeswoman said the company wanted to provide additional security for its users to protect personal documents but would still work with law enforcement when appropriate. An Apple representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Comey said FBI agents have come across a growing number of cases for which they believe evidence was in a phone or a laptop that they were unable to crack, though he did not provide specific examples.

“If this becomes the norm, I suggest to you that homicide cases could be stalled, suspects walk free, child exploitation not discovered and prosecuted,” he said.

Comey also urged Congress to update the law that governs law enforcement’s ability to intercept communications, which was enacted two decades ago and does not address some newer technologies.

In his speech, he gave examples of cases that agents were able to piece together from evidence contained on cell phones, including against a Louisiana man who was convicted of murdering a 12-year-old boy and a drug trafficking ring in Kansas City.

The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday criticized Comey’s remarks, arguing that the law did not force telecommunications companies to build an avenue for decryption into their products.

In an interview, ACLU legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani said it was not clear if FBI agents will be hindered in their investigations through the new encryption since they already have access to other types of information.

“A couple of anecdotes from the FBI isn’t enough,” Singh said.

Reporting by Aruna Viswanatha; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Jonathan Oatis

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