ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
FBI director, James Comey, was on Capitol Hill today, and he was talking about encryption. Comey wants Silicon Valley companies to allow law enforcement the ability to monitor communications with a court order. But companies have resisted, and they're building more and more encrypted devices that can only be opened by the user. That's called strong encryption, and the FBI director says that's a problem.
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JAMES COMEY: We cannot break strong encryption. I think people watch TV and think the Bureau can do lots of things. We cannot break strong encryption.
SIEGEL: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston joins me now with the latest in this debate. Hi, Dina.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Hi there.
SIEGEL: Did James Comey make an effective case for law enforcement access to encrypted data?
TEMPLE-RASTON: I think he made a start. He provided senators on the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees with very specific examples - actual cases in which he said the FBI tried to obtain electronic information after getting a warrant but they couldn't get it because it was encrypted or scrambled. He said it came up in a recent case in Boston. A follower of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIL, was contemplating an attack, but the FBI couldn't see exactly what he was planning because they lost him in an encrypted site. That's something the Bureau calls going dark. And here's what he said happened.
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COMEY: In Boston, you had a guy who was in touch in an encrypted way with these ISIL recruiters and, we believe, was bent on doing something on July 4. He woke up one morning, June 2, and decided he was going to go kill somebody. He confronted our people with a knife, and unfortunately, they had to use their weapons. But that's an example of sort of the unpredictability of this.
SIEGEL: And he had examples that weren't just about terrorism.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. He said the encryption technology actually affects everything from child pornography to kidnapping. He talked about a case of a long-haul trucker who had kidnapped his girlfriend last December. The trucker took her from state to state and sexually assaulted her, and she eventually escaped and pressed charges. And the trucker claimed it was consensual sex. As it turned out, he had videotaped his assaults on his smartphone. The FBI got a warrant, and they used that video against him in court.
SIEGEL: And how would that case have been different if the phone had this new encryption on it?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, Comey said if there had been one key encryption, or end-to-end encryption, on that phone, the truck driver would have refused to give them a password to open it. End-to-end encryption means that law enforcement has to go directly to a target instead of to, say, a company for a password or a key. If they had end-to-end encryption in place for that trucker case, they might not have had access to that incriminating video.
SIEGEL: And what about technical concerns? Does having passwords or encryption keys for law enforcement actually weaken the system overall?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, some elite security technologists released a paper last night that made pretty much that argument. They provided a technical analysis of the government's proposals for special access, and they think what the government wants could put the whole system at risk because, as they see it, if law enforcement could get that access, then maybe hackers could get that access too. The group - this particular group has some sway because it ended up derailing a plan in the 1990s to allow the government to unscramble communications. What's unclear this time is whether they have - they can have that kind of effect. Director Comey has said he's open to any ideas that technology companies might have to solve this encryption problem, and the solution, he suggested, might be something that hasn't even been discovered yet.
SIEGEL: Dina, just one question. I mean, if I'm not a terrorist or not a pornographer, what's my protection here that the FBI or other agencies of government won't go poking into my personal data?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, theoretically, the way this is supposed to work is they're supposed to go into a judge and actually get a warrant. What he's talking about now is even with a warrant, with these encrypted devices, the warrant doesn't do them any good.
SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Dina. That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.