FBI director worries about encryption on smartphones

The agency has talked to Google and Apple about concerns that new security will help criminals

android encryption

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is concerned about moves by Apple and Google to include encryption on smartphones, the agency's director said Thursday.

Quick law enforcement access to the contents of smartphones could save lives in some kidnapping and terrorism cases, FBI Director James Comey said in a briefing with some reporters. Comey said he's concerned that smartphone companies are marketing "something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law," according to news reports.

An FBI spokesman confirmed the general direction of Comey's remarks. The FBI has contacted Apple and Google about their encryption plans, Comey told a group of reporters who regularly cover his agency.

Just last week, Google announced it would be turning on data encryption by default in the next version of Android. Apple, with the release of iOS 8 earlier this month, allowed iPhone and iPad users to encrypt most personal data with a password.

Comey's remarks, prompted by a reporter's question, came just days after Ronald Hosko, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund and former assistant director of the FBI Criminal Investigative Division, decried mobile phone encryption in a column in the Washington Post.

Smartphone companies shouldn't give criminals "one more tool," he wrote. "Apple's and Android's new protections will protect many thousands of criminals who seek to do us great harm, physically or financially. They will protect those who desperately need to be stopped from lawful, authorized, and entirely necessary safety and security efforts. And they will make it impossible for police to access crucial information, even with a warrant."

Representatives of Apple and Google didn't immediately respond to requests for comments on Comey's concerns.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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