FBI director James Comey has called for a national debate in the US on encryption of electronic devices vs. National security. He says the agency has been collecting data for the last few months to stir a conversation at a national level on the same. Comey says it’s not an issue for the government or FBI to decide, but for the citizens. He says the encryption technology is making it impossible for the law enforcement to crack criminal cases.
Speaking Friday at the American Bar Association annual conference in San Francisco, Comey said the agency has faced trouble in accessing 650 of 5,000 electronic devices which have, in the last 10 months, been found on criminals. The problem is only going to get worse unless we have a discussion on this, he added.
The FBI recently filed a lawsuit against tech giant Apple, which refused to unlock the iPhone of a shooter in San Bernardino, who killed 14 people are wounded 22. The FBI urged Apple to unlock the device as it was a case of national security. Apple, backed by other major companies like Google, upheld the individual’s right to privacy and refused to tamper with the device.
This sparked a debate across not only the US but other parts of the world. In response to the case, which was eventually withdrawn from court after the FBI unlocked the iPhone with the help of a third party, Comey said, “The San Bernardino litigation was necessary, but in my view, it was also counterproductive. It was necessary because we had to get into that phone. It was counterproductive because it made it very hard to have a complex conversation.”
Comey’s argument is that encryption technology makes it impossible to search electronic devices in criminal cases. But, he leaves the decision to the citizens of the US.
The flip side of the coin refers to an individual’s right to privacy. Some citizens believe it is against the law to allow authorities—the FBI and government—access to one’s personal life.
If you think this is not relevant to the Indian context, let me remind you of the petition filed in the Supreme Court of India by a Haryana-based Right to Information activist. He called for banning WhatsApp, which hosts end-to-end encryption of messages, as it is against national security. Citing the example of terrorists using messaging applications like Hike, Viber and WhatsApp to communicate, he sought a ban of all such platforms. The apex court dismissed the petition, and redirected the petitioner to the government.
This is a debate that should be reignited. And not just in the US, but across the world. How safe are we in a world where instant messages cannot be accessed by anyone but the sender and the receiver?