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FBI to Congress: Strong encryption aids terrorists

The next great partisan battle in Congress is upon us.


Patrick Howell O'Neill


Posted on Jun 3, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 4:29 pm CDT

One day after Apple CEO Tim Cook delivered a vocal defense of encryption, the Federal Bureau of Investigation responded at a hearing in front of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Encryption aids terrorists by giving them “a free zone by which to recruit, radicalize, plot, and plan” online, Michael Steinbach, assistant director of the FBI’s counter-terrorism division, argued in front of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Steinbach echoed FBI director James Comey’s calls to expand the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act in order to require access to encrypted mobile phone data in the same way that telecom carriers build legal wiretap capabilities into phone networks in the U.S.

“We’re not talking about large-scale surveillance techniques,” Steinbach said. “We’re not looking at going through a backdoor or being nefarious. We’re talking about going to the company and asking for their assistance.”

The congressional hearing was called “Terrorism Gone Viral.” On Tuesday, Apple’s Cook called “the battle over encryption” an “attack on our civil liberties.”

“Some in Washington are hoping to undermine the ability of ordinary citizens to encrypt their data,” Cook said. He elaborated:

If you put a key under the mat for the cops, a burglar can find it, too. Criminals are using every technology tool at their disposal to hack into people’s accounts. If they know there’s a key hidden somewhere, they won’t stop until they find it.

Removing encryption tools from our products altogether, as some in Washington would like us to do, would only hurt law-abiding citizens who rely on us to protect their data. The bad guys will still encrypt; it’s easy to do and readily available.

Expect this battle—known as “the new crypto wars”—to continue to pop up and heat up. 

The FBI’s push for backdoors into encryption technology is continuously clashing with Silicon Valley’s resistance. 

This is a conflict that only Congress can decide. After the congressional strife over surveillance in the Patriot Act, it seems clear that encryption could be the next acute partisan collision over technology in Washington, D.C.

Photo via Kevin Jaako/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Jun 3, 2015, 9:54 pm CDT