Top FBI Official Says Tech Companies Need To 'Prevent Encryption Above All Else'

from the where-do-they-find-these-people? dept

Usually, when we see clueless government lackeys discussing the need to backdoor encryption, they at least admit upfront that they think encryption is important in protecting private information. Even that nutty rambling speech by Homeland Security Appropriations chair Rep. John Carter recognized that there were important reasons to use encryption to protect privacy. And FBI boss James Comey usually does some hand waving to that effect as well. But apparently he forgot to tell one of his deputies.

While testifying before Congress, Michael Steinbach, assistant director in the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, just went to the levels of pure insanity, in arguing that above all else companies should work to prevent encryption. This was during a ridiculous grandstanding hearing held by the House Homeland Security Committee entitled “Terrorism Gone Viral”, and Steinbach didn’t waste the opportunity to make a ridiculously viral comment of his own:

So that?s the challenge: working with those companies to build technological solutions to prevent encryption above all else.

Above all else? Is he crazy? At least his written testimony isn’t quite as crazy, but still has a bunch of fear-mongering about “going dark.”

Unfortunately, changing forms of internet communication are quickly outpacing laws and technology designed to allow for the lawful intercept of communication content. This real and growing gap the FBI refers to as ?Going Dark? is the source of continuing focus for the FBI, it must be urgently addressed as the risks associated with ?Going Dark? are grave both in traditional criminal matters as well as in national security matters.

He also seemed positively freaked out that some social networks actually recognize that protecting their users privacy is a good thing:

“There are 200-plus social media companies. Some of these companies build their business model around end-to-end encryption,” said Michael Steinbach, head of the FBI’s counterterrorism division. “There is no ability currently for us to see that” communication, he said.

“We’re past going dark in certain instances. We are dark,” he added.

While the head of the committee, Rep. Michael McCaul played along with this insanity, arguing about how these so called “dark spaces” are a “tremendous threat to the homeland” at least Rep. Ted Lieu — the same Rep. who recently called out the push to backdoor encryption as “technologically stupid” — has some more thoughts on the FUD and grandstanding by McCaul and Steinbach. As he told the Intercept:

?When they talk about dark places, ooooh it sounds really scary,? Lieu said. ?But you have a dark place in your home you can talk, you can meet in a park ?- there are a zillion dark places the FBI will never get to and they shouldn?t because we don?t want to be monitored in our home.? …..

?The notion that encryption is somehow different than other forms of destroying and hiding things is simply not true,? Lieu told The Intercept. ?Forty years ago, you could make the statement that paper shredders are one of the most damaging things to national security because they destroy documents that law enforcement might want to see.?

More Lieu, less McCaul and Steinbach, please.

The thing is, as we’ve noted before, what’s equally as disturbing as the ignorant statements from folks like Steinbach is that now, security researchers and tech companies are going to have to waste tons of time and resources explaining why all of this is not just “technically stupid” but actively makes all of us less safe. And they need to do that, rather than building stronger encryption, which is what we really need.

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Comments on “Top FBI Official Says Tech Companies Need To 'Prevent Encryption Above All Else'”

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68 Comments
RadioactiveSmurf (profile) says:

“…ignorant statements from folks like Steinbach…” I would argue that they are willfully ignorant statements. Steinbach knows what he’s doing and is pushing this narritive on purpose. He is as aware as Lieu is of dark places, and how forty years ago they go along just fine. Steinbach just doesn’t want to lose something that makes the FBI’s job so much easier.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Steinbach just doesn’t want to lose something that makes the FBI’s job so much easier.

I do not so sure that it actually makes their job easier because, they Hoover up as much information as they can and then try to make sense of it. Perhaps if the Internet and phones were heavily encrypted they would actually focus of the criminals, and that would make their job easier.

SteveMB (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

It depends on what you mean by “their job”.

If you mean “actually stopping terrorists”, then sweeping up everything makes their job harder (e.g. the clear red flags about the Fort Hood shooter, the Boston Marathon bombers, the Garland shooters, etc got lost in the information overload).

If you mean “collecting a paycheck until you can collect a pension”, well, then, yeah, being able to sit at a computer instead of wearing out shoe leather makes their job easier.

sigalrm (profile) says:

Re: Re:

He’s helping the FBI set up the “middle ground” option, the same that you would do with any project.

It’s the proverbial “here’s the cadillac option, here’s the ford focus option, and here’s the yugo option that you’d present as project options to your boss.”

This is (depending on your perspective) either the Yugo or the Cadillac option. He doesn’t expect to get it, probably doesn’t actually want it, and you can be certain he knows he’s coming off as sounding unreasonable/irrational.

But it’s going to make the “middle ground” option – when finally presented – sound oh-so-much better to the powers that be.

Call me Al says:

Next argument

“Forty years ago, you could make the statement that paper shredders are one of the most damaging things to national security because they destroy documents that law enforcement might want to see.”

To which the FBI would no doubt say “Wow good point. We better get those banned too.”

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Next argument

You beat me to it. Burn bags are still used for very secure documents, because paper shredders only stop casual spies. More dedicated ones can and do reassemble shredded documents.

Where I work, everything gets burnt after being shredded. We don’t have burn bags as such, but instead we hire a company to take care of the disposal.

The Infamous Joe (profile) says:

TBF

“But you have a dark place in your home you can talk, you can meet in a park –- there are a zillion dark places the FBI will never get to and they shouldn’t because we don’t want to be monitored in our home.”

To be fair, there’s a huge difference between this and encryption; the ‘zillion dark places’ can be monitored with a warrant. All the warrants in the world can’t get them past encryption.

Don’t get me wrong, I think they just need to suck it up, but at least I understand why encryption freaks them out more than clandestine meetings in the dog park, amongst the hooded figures.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: TBF

Actually they can monitor encryption. They just have to monitor the endpoints (key loggers, microphones, hidden cameras, etc). Same as they can monitor “the ‘zillion dark places'”. The key thing about encryption is that they can’t monitor between the end points. And since encryption prevents them from being able to monitor the middle, it means that whatever they do monitor doe require a warrant and so prevents the indiscriminate vacuuming of data on everyone.

Anonymous Coward says:

I don't get it

Encryption is not something that is limited to computers.

Quoting Wikipedia: In cryptography, encryption is the process of encoding messages or information in such a way that only authorized parties can read it.

You don’t need computers to do it. All you need is an agreement between the parties wanting to communicate with each other privately. They could agree to use a book as key and send each other just pairs of numbers, the first indicating a specific page, the second the place of a word on that page. Without knowing the book there is no way (at least that I know of) to decrypt such a message.

So, what is all the fuzz about?

Anonymous Coward says:

> there are a zillion dark places the FBI will never get to and they shouldn’t because we don’t want to be monitored in our home.” …..

Uhh…yeah, I think they already are being monitored in our homes through our PCs, TVs, smartphones and soon through all the “Internet of Things” devices.

Lieu has been great so far, but it’s interesting to see that even someone like him can’t really understand that we’re already passed that point and the situation is MUCH WORSE than he is imagining. If even he can’t see that, what can we expect from the technologically clueless politicians?

mcinsand (profile) says:

they need to take a minute to consider the alternative

Let’s just say that no-one has access to encryption, just for the sake of argument. Everyone’s information is unprotected. In other words, if a malicious entity wanted to do whatever, then that entity would be able to easily sort through information to find a suitable victim. Arguing against encryption is arguing for making us all easier targets; to oppose encryption is to oppose security for those people the bozos are supposed to be trying to protect.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: they need to take a minute to consider the alternative

This behavior and the accompanying blather are nothing new for those with the statist mindset. Consider how many items you can use to complete the following paraphrase of mcinsand’s statement:

Arguing against [insert item] is arguing for making us all easier targets; to oppose [insert item] is to oppose security (or rights) of the people.

Jeff Green (profile) says:

Never mind shredders

Matches!

We must ban matches, apparently if you burn a letter no-one can read it afterwards.

Oh and foreign languages, many people don’t even speak God’s good English how can we be expected to understand that?

Oh and whispering!
For pity’s sake when will they ban whispering, we must think of the children …

sounds of very small brain exploding …

Anonymous Coward says:

When they outlaw encryption, only outlaws will have encryption

Do they really think that criminals and terrorists aren’t going to use encryption if it is made illegal? All this will do is ensure Joe Public is unsafe while criminals will have a field day. Next thing you know, they will make it illegal to have locks on the doors to your home and automobiles.

sigalrm (profile) says:

Re: When they outlaw encryption, only outlaws will have encryption

If you make encryption illegal, you can, ipso facto, arrest and convict people simply for using it.

At that point, you don’t even have to worry about the nature of the presumed illegal activity the crypto-user might have been planning.

And in a networking environment where you can hoover up nearly all network traffic, people using crypto stick out like sore thumbs.

tqk (profile) says:

What's really missing here is effective oversight.

If this guy really believes what he’s saying, he should never have got the job and should be fired immediately, or at least demoted to walking a beat.

These agencies waste a fortune on people like this, but with effective oversight scaring them into actually doing their jobs as is expected of them, they’d be able to do multiple times better than they are now, and with far less. Instead, encouraging lazy minded and ignorant whiners like this, all that money just pours through the cracks in the floor.

All big gov’t agencies learn this truth eventually. Throw a fortune at them and they’ll find a way to waste it and come back whining they need more. Effective oversight is the only solution.

Oh, and fire the people who hired him and his immediate superior too. They’re apparently just as lazy or incompetent, or both. None of them are earning their continued employment and blue ribbon salaries.

Anonymous Coward says:

Burn bags, matches, and fire...

I’m old enough to remember when several large retailers in my area had an incinerator in back of their stores to burn their trash. Those were outlawed in the 1960’s. Today the only ‘incinerators’ belong to biolabs, hospitals, and mortuaries. Not all of them have an incinerator, and they all have to go through a use permit process to get one. If there is an incinerator belonging to the government in my area I don’t know about it. Likely burn bags are couriered to another area that has a legal incinerator.

TheResidentSkeptic says:

"Above All Else"

We need to remove Luddites like this from our government. We have become a digital nation; our leaders MUST become digitally aware (if not savvy) – so our only recourse is to convince digital natives to step up and run – and for us to elect them soon -before these clueless ones finish ruining this country. These guys are worse than the first senators who declared they would never “dial a phone” as it was beneath their dignity (or over their heads).

AEIO_ (profile) says:

Nomenclature Issues.

“Michael Steinbach, [is] arguing that above all else companies should work to prevent encryption.”

Nonsense! Mike, turn that frown upside-down — just announce and enforce a new mandatory business encryption standard. That solves all issues: mandatory encryption AND an automatic embedded security key that only the good guys* can use.

Double ROT-13 for consumers! High security issues? Use twice-as-hard quadruple ROT-13.

*BAD guys will be shown only the highly encrypted contents so absolutely no issues here.

sigalrm (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“Does the Government use encryption?” A: Yes.
“Why?”: A: To protect itself and its citizens from the Very Bad People(tm) who wish to do Very Bad Things(tm).

“Should citizens be denied that same protection?”: A: Yes.
“Why?”: To allow the government to properly protect itself and its citizens from the Very Bad People(tm) who wish to do Very Bad Things(tm).

From a certain perspective, that logic makes a lot of sense. From most other perspectives, not so much. But when your job mandate is to make sure that “never again will there be a (9/11, world trade center, boston marathon bombing, etc)”, it must get pretty easy after a while to accomplish the necessary mental gymnastics. It’s the same pressure that eventually allows a person to turn everyone who disagrees with their methods into terrorist sympathizers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

But when your job mandate is to make sure that “never again will there be a (9/11, world trade center, boston marathon bombing, etc)”,

Then your job is impossible as even the most totalitarian regime cannot prevent all internal or external attacks. They may however be able to keep the less effect one hidden from the world.

Anonymous Coward says:

So these guys don’t want any encryption, AND it looks someone just stole all the governments HR data. Seeing how these two super geniuses are government employees, I can only hope the group that has all that data, does something really fun, public and devastating with James Comey, and Michael Steinbachs social security numbers. This is going to be SO much fun to watch, where’s my popcorn.

Anonymous Coward says:

The classic example of meglomaniac!

The FBI seems to claiming the right and duty of eavesdropping on everything spoken, written or thought in the USA or the world. How better to describe a megalomaniac nutcase? The FBI seems to define themselves as insane both personally and institutionally, incrementally day by day with full political backing. Is somebody spiking the water supply in Washington with hallucinogenics the last 10 years.

tqk (profile) says:

"Going dark".

FYI, from Life after Snowden – journalists’ new moral responsibility:

Whenever I hear members of the security services claiming the bad guys are “going dark” on them, I think of an essay with that very title by professor Peter Swire, an internet, privacy, and encryption expert who worked at the White House, and was part of President Obama’s review panel into the issues raised by Snowden.

“Due to changing technology, there are indeed specific ways that law enforcement and national security agencies lose specific previous capabilities’” he wrote in his November 2011 essay. “These specific losses, however, are more than offset by massive gains. Public debates should recognize that we are truly in a golden age of surveillance. By understanding that, we can reject calls for bad encryption policy. More generally, we should critically assess a wide range of proposals, and build a more secure computing and communications infrastructure.”

It’s a good read summing up Snowden’s legacy (so far). I wonder why the administration is ignoring experts they themselves hired to inform themselves.

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