ABA Annual Meeting

FBI director: Fix clashes between privacy, public safety with 'robust conversation,' not litigation

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James Comey

FBI Director James Comey. Photo by Tony Avelar.

The FBI is collecting data on how the widespread use of encryption technology is “impacting our world,” and is looking for examples to share with the American people for an informed debate over the collision of two of our most basic values: privacy and public safety, FBI Director James Comey said Friday.

“The way to sort through this is robust conversation,” Comey told the ABA Plenary Session in a speech that ranged from the entertaining and personal to the omnipresence of terrorism.

The session’s theme was “Emerging Issues in National Security and Law Enforcement.” Speaking in San Francisco at the ABA Annual Meeting, Comey—as he has in many speeches since becoming head of the FBI in 2013—focused on encryption.

Comey said that conflicts between privacy and public safety should not be solved by litigation. He mentioned the disputes between Apple Inc. and the agency in recent years, the latest of which came to a head after the December 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. Two attackers killed 14 people before dying in a shootout with police. Apple refused to assist the FBI in unlocking the phone of one of the attackers.

While the matter was in court, the FBI found a third party who unlocked the device, and the FBI withdrew its request.

After his speech, Comey took several questions from the audience. One questioner was Elizabeth Parker, a former general counsel of the CIA and the National Security Agency. Parker noted that a number of well-positioned people say the problem is not that the FBI can’t manage the encryption problem, but that the agency doesn’t have the technical capability—that a governmentwide effort could manage it, but not the agency alone.

Comey didn’t go into specifics in his response. “The technical challenge is extraordinary, no matter who you are—NSA or some other part of the intelligence community,” he said.

Comey told the gathering that his own children were briefed on awareness of security concerns, which included learning the four colors for different states of the world. Red means you’re fighting for your life; orange means you’re on the cusp of such a fight; white is “a state of headphones on, texting on a New York City subway at midnight.”

He told them to live in a state of yellow: being aware, but not disabling fear.

“Please don’t let these savages drive you to orange or red,” he told the gathering, but keep a healthy awareness and resist the “disabling fear pushed at us and pushed at us 24 hours a day.”

Follow along with our full coverage of the 2016 ABA Annual Meeting.

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