FBI Chief Criticizes Apple, Google Smartphone Data Encryption

FBI Director James Comey said the encryption move by Apple and Google for new smartphones will make it harder for police to catch terrorists and other criminals. Not so fast, says an IT analyst.

data encryption

Recent moves by Apple and Google to protect user data on smartphones from snooping and surveillance by introducing default data encryption are being criticized loudly by the director of the FBI, who argues that the changes will make it tougher for law enforcement officers to gain critical information about suspects in crimes.

FBI Director James Comey said that the new default encryption practices in new phones running on Apple's iOS 8 or Google's Android operating systems will essentially help criminals cover their tracks when using smartphones, according to a Sept. 25 story by the Associated Press. Comey made his remarks to reporters at FBI headquarters in Washington.

U.S. government officials are now engaged in talks with Apple and Google to discuss these concerns, the story reported. Previously, smartphones didn't automatically encrypt user data unless users took that step on their own. New phones will have encryption turned on when they are manufactured.

"What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to hold themselves beyond the law," Comey told reporters, according to the AP.

"Comey cited child-kidnapping and terrorism cases as two examples of situations where quick access by authorities to information on cellphones can save lives," according to the AP. "Comey did not cite specific past cases that would have been more difficult for the FBI to investigate under the new policies, which only involve physical access to a suspect's or victim's phone when the owner is unable or unwilling to unlock it for authorities."

Apple and Google both recently unveiled new data encryption features in their smartphone operating systems, according to a recent eWEEK report. Google will include default data encryption in its upcoming Android L operating system, while Apple now includes it in its recently launched iOS 8 operating system, which is included with new iPhone 6 models and other devices.

In a recent statement to eWEEK, a Google spokesperson confirmed the upcoming changes. "For over three years Android has offered encryption, and keys are not stored off of the device, so they cannot be shared with law enforcement," the spokesperson told eWEEK. "As part of our next Android release, encryption will be enabled by default out of the box, so you won't even have to think about turning it on."

In a statement on Apple's Website, CEO Tim Cook recently said the company is renewing its commitment to user privacy. "At Apple, your trust means everything to us," Cook wrote in a letter posted on the new Apple privacy site. "That's why we respect your privacy and protect it with strong encryption, plus strict policies that govern how all data is handled."

The Android L encryption move was unveiled in a Sept. 18 story by The Washington Post as part of Google's latest push to better protect the data of its millions of users, especially in light of allegations made in 2013 of government snooping in Google and Yahoo data centers. Android L is expected to be released by Google in October.

According to the AP, the changes by Apple and Google could still allow law enforcement officials to intercept conversations, but they "might not be able to access call data, contacts, photos and email stored on the phone."

Meanwhile, authorities still could have access to a person's cell phone data that has been backed up to online storage services, according to the AP story. "They could also still retrieve real-time phone records and logs of text messages to see whom a suspect was calling or texting, and they could still obtain wiretaps to eavesdrop on all calls made with the phones."

Charles King, principal analyst at research firm Pund-it, told eWEEK that it's interesting that law enforcement agencies might be twisting the personal privacy concerns of Apple and Google and their users to try to make the issue into a polarizing matter.

"It's a quandary, but it's a bit of a bait-and-switch issue as well," said King. "This has come up a dozen times in the past in connection to encryption. Typically, a new encryption technology comes forward and the folks in authority will claim it will prevent them from doing their jobs in keeping the bad guys off the streets."

The problem with that argument, said King, is that the privacy worries often began because of law enforcement going too far in snooping on people without good cause and without warrants.

"What's unstated [in the FBI director's comments] is that the inspiration for Google's and Apple's decision to add encryption to their devices came largely due to evidence that authorities in the U.S. and elsewhere have been basically wading through people's data and saving it without evidence that crimes were being committed," said King. "I think it's reasonable [for law enforcement officials] to express these concerns, but it's also a little ironic. They're not copping to their responsibility in the first place."