Consider that the encryption that keeps prying eyes from the information in your iPhone may be the same privacy technology that enables organizations like the Islamic State to recruit terrorists and plan attacks. Is the benefit to your privacy worth the risk to your safety?
That question was at the heart of the recent testimony given by FBI Director James Comey, as he explained the challenges that new and improved forms of encryption pose to law enforcement. In the past, such statements and speeches have focused on the technologies themselves — social networking sites and encrypted phones, among other things — but this time the director chose to focus on one well-known enemy and their widespread use of such technology: the Islamic State, or ISIL.
Comey told the Senate: "To an even greater degree than al Qaeda or other foreign terrorist organizations, ISIL has persistently used the Internet to communicate. From a homeland perspective, it is ISIL's widespread reach through the Internet and social media which is most concerning as ISIL has aggressively employed this technology for its nefarious strategy. ISIL blends traditional media platforms, glossy photos, in-depth articles and social media campaigns that can go viral in a matter of seconds. No matter the format, the message of radicalization spreads faster than we imagined just a few years ago."
Some of these communications are public and are able to be read on social media sites that anyone can access. But the more worrying issue for the FBI is the wide spectrum of communications that no one but sender and recipient can see or read — messages traded via private platforms or untrackable phones. In Comey's words, "Unfortunately, changing forms of Internet communication are quickly outpacing laws and technology designed to allow for the lawful intercept of communication content … Whereas traditional voice telephone companies are required by CALEA to develop and maintain capabilities to intercept communications when law enforcement has lawful authority, that requirement does not extend to most Internet communications services. As a result, such services can be developed and deployed without any ability for law enforcement to collect information critical to criminal and national security investigations and prosecutions."
This so-called "strong encryption" is a selling point for companies like Apple and Google, a ready answer to a public concerned about the privacy of its most intimate communications. But for Comey and the FBI, terrorist organizations' effective use of social media combined with technology that law enforcement cannot crack represents a dangerous new development. "Our job is to look at a haystack the size of this country to find needles that are increasingly invisible to us because of end-to-end encryption," Comey said.
These are more than just hypothetical scenarios. Usaamah Rahim, a Boston man, who was said to be planning a terrorist attack and was killed just before the FBI was set to question him. It was impossible, Comey noted, to see what he was planning because he was using an encrypted site.
This isn't a new problem — but for the director, it's a problem that will worsen as encryption on phones improves. Technology companies have been reluctant to provide federal law enforcement with a "backdoor" to access information, and, though Comey has been vocal on this subject, he himself had few hard-and-fast prescriptions. In fact, he was adamant that technology companies were on the same wavelength as law enforcement — and praised encryption as valuable. "I am not here to fight a war," he declared. Whether or not Comey is looking for a war, it's come to his doorstep. As encryption technologies become more powerful, law enforcement runs the risk of becoming more impotent in the face of grave threats.