FBI Director James Comey
FBI Director James Comey told reporters the bureau is pressuring Apple and Google to relax their new privacy policies. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

FBI Director James Comey said Thursday he is “very concerned” about the new strategy employed by Silicon Valley companies to better protect customer privacy by stripping themselves of the ability to help police access a locked phone.

“I am a huge believer in the rule of law, but I am also a believer that no one in this country is above the law,” Comey told a group of reporters at FBI headquarters in Washington. “What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves above the law.”

Comey’s remarks are the first statement from the FBI head since Apple CEO Tim Cook announced last week that, under its new operating system iOS 8, the company would no longer help law enforcement officials bypass customer passcodes, therefore giving them access to an individual’s data. The company also set up a new privacy page to better explain to customers how the tech giant will respond to government information requests in the future.

“Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data,” the company said. “So it’s not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8.”

Marketing strategy or not, the news was greeted warmly by privacy activists, who have long criticized major tech firms for doing too little to resist what they consider over-aggressive surveillance. Apple, like other major data companies, has also complained that it has little choice but to cooperate with controversial surveillance programs exposed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Comey told reporters that top law enforcement officials have spoken to Apple and Google, which followed Apple’s lead and reduced its own ability to access phones, to get them to back down.

“There will come a day – well it comes every day in this business – when it will matter a great, great deal to the loves of people of all kinds that we be able to do with judicial authorization gain access to a kidnapper’s or a terrorist or a criminal’s device,” Comey said Thursday. “I just want to make sure we have a good conversation in this country before that day comes. I’d hate to have people look at me and say, ‘Well how come you can’t save this kid,’ ‘How come you can’t do this thing.’”