The FBI says that its inability to access encrypted emails and other information coursing through the networks of tech giants like Apple and Facebook is hurting the bureau's ability to solve crimes. Regulations that allow law enforcement to wiretap phone lines need updating to include services like Gmail and iOS, FBI Director James B. Comey said Thursday, according to a report in the New York Times.
Congress should update a 1994 law that required phone companies to build a system that allowed law enforcement to instantly begin wiretapping a suspect’s lines when presented with a court order, Comey argued in a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“Unfortunately, the law hasn’t kept pace with technology, and this disconnect has created a significant public safety problem,” Comey said, according to the report.
As communications continue their shift online and away from phones, the FBI is attempting to expand laws to cover email and other services. A number of start-up companies developing new communication services don't include interception capabilities, delaying court orders.
Tech companies from large to small argue that building in a way for law enforcement to access and unscramble their data streams is expensive, and a security hazard. Some also argue that doing so could have ripple effects harming the entire industry.
“The impact is severe, and it is getting worse,” said Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, earlier this month. “The simplest outcome is that we are going to end up breaking the internet.”
Comey’s comments follow Apple’s announcement last month that it was encrypting user information with its latest iPhone software to prevent anyone from being able to tap into communications, even with a supercomputer. Google said that the newest version of Android will be delivered encrypted.
Comey said the law should be revised to require companies to decode messages if they are presented with a court order, according to the report. Gmail messages are encrypted while in transit from a user’s computer to Google, but the search giant stores them in plain text on its servers. A number of services increasingly offer end-to-end encryption that even the providers cannot decode, which Comey said should be illegal.