James Comey Says 'Dozens' Of Terrorists Have Eluded The FBI Thanks To Encryption

from the 0-999-TERRORISTS-UNSURVEILLED dept

The administration won’t back FBI Director James Comey’s push for encryption backdoors. Neither will Congress, at least not at this point. (But just give ’em one terrorist attack…) Former intelligence officials have written off backdoored encryption as a lost cause, if not a genuinely bad idea. But Comey continues to peddle his “gone dark” future to whoever will listen. In this case, it was the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

The Committee wanted a ballpark estimate of the “going dark” problem. Comey delivered, with an answer both incredibly vague and completely underwhelming.

The De­part­ment of Justice has in the past de­murred when asked to ap­prox­im­ate the scale of what of­fi­cials of­ten call the “go­ing dark prob­lem.” But pressed by com­mit­tee chair­man Ron John­son on how many ter­ror sus­pects his agents have ac­tu­ally lost track of be­cause of en­cryp­tion, Comey on Wed­nes­day gave the closest thing to a stat­ist­ic that the de­part­ment has pub­licly shared.

“Prob­ably the best num­ber I can give in an open set­ting is dozens,” Comey said.

It’s a great answer, if you like unverifiable claims that suggest anywhere from 24 to hundreds of terrorists are now operating beyond the reach of subpoenas and national security letters. (Although you’d think if it was hundreds, Comey would have said hundreds.) This answer is about as precise as the “0-999” bands the government forces private companies to use when reporting government requests for user data. What it isn’t, however, is a ringing endorsement of Comey’s “going dark” narrative. Not that one committee member didn’t try to help out Comey with his story.

John­son seemed taken aback at the re­sponse and moved on to ask an­oth­er ques­tion. Later, he re­turned to the FBI dir­ect­or’s an­swer.

“I’m a little con­cerned about num­bers, but I will say, I’m sur­prised if it is only a couple dozen people who have been in­spired by so­cial me­dia and then moved in­to en­cryp­ted ac­counts,” John­son said.

Whatever the number actually is, it’s high enough for Comey. And high enough for Johnson. And, coincidentally, it’s also the same (approximate) number of potential ISIS recruits the FBI has managed to “disrupt,” according to Comey.

FBI counterterrorism agents followed dozens of potential militants around the United States full time over the summer and disrupted activities pursued by many of them, FBI Director James Comey told a congressional committee on Thursday.

Comey also told the committee this:

He said Islamic State militants had become expert at attracting potential recruits through social media pitches, and had mastered how to coax promising recruits into using private communications channels.

“When they find a live one, they will move them off Twitter, and move them to an end-to-end encrypted messaging app,” Comey said. He said without a court order, the FBI could not read such encrypted message traffic.

This statement makes it sound as though “going dark” isn’t a problem with technology, but a problem with paperwork. Either the FBI’s used to getting this stuff without it, or having suspects fall off the social media grid makes obtaining court orders a little more difficult. Either way, it doesn’t exactly sound like punching holes in encryption is the only way the FBI can stay abreast of the latest in terrorist chatter.

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Comments on “James Comey Says 'Dozens' Of Terrorists Have Eluded The FBI Thanks To Encryption”

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57 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Those in charge are always right, and they're always right because they're in charge

That’s easy.

Do you agree with and support everything the government does and/or says?

If yes, then you’re a patriot.
If no, then you’re at the very least a potential terrorist, and need to be put under constant surveillance.

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Re: Inconceivable!

The Sons of Liberty were patriots, and if faced with the world we live in and the governmental abuses we have, the Sons would already be shooting.

By the modern definition of terrorist, most of the Founders of the country were terrorists. Under current US policy that anyone who violently rebels is not a legitimate nation even if they win, the US would not have recognized itself as a legitimate nation back in 1776.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Dozens?

Actually, a better question would be how many potential crimes ranging from financial fraud to personal, religious or other persecution, stalking and whatever else have been avoided due to encryption. Crimes that would have taken place if Comey had the situation he wanted.

I somehow think that the average American is more at risk from more general fraud and abuse than they are from terrorism, yet he wants protection from these things removed to make his job easier to perform without having to follow due process.

Justme says:

Fear mongering.

The level of fear mongering over this is insane! They need to accept one simple truth, regardless of any legal, social, or technical obstacle’s you put in place; people who want to communicate privately will will find a way!

So he is really just chasing his own tail. . . while advocating something that will make the majority of people less secure and not an anyway prevent people from communicating in a manner that is not accessible to law enforcement.

Anonymous Coward says:

Unlike a lot of people here, I think Comey is right about encryption making parts of the world go dark to the FBI. Everything is about trade-offs though and I think it would be pretty hard to argue that the problems with strong encryption are greater than the benefits of strong encryption.

Comey isn’t ever going to admit that. Like Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Anonymous Coward says:

FBI counterterrorism agents followed dozens of potential militants…

You have to be very careful here in the way the FBI describes ‘potential militants’. Anyone using encryption is a potential. That’s pretty much what DHS put out in their ‘see something say something’ definitions of potential terrorists activities.

I’d not think it hard to come up with dozens under that description and be on the conservative side of the estimation. That doesn’t mean these individuals are terrorists, it merely means the definition of the word has been adjusted so they can get satisfactory numbers.

Mark Wing (user link) says:

Setting aside the utter pointlessness and futility of his give-up-your-rights-or-the-terrorists-win all-or-nothing ideology, all this is really just fueling innovation.

Attacks on encryption put evolutionary pressure on it, just like the attacks on copyright infringement have done and are still doing.

The future of privacy is scary: trusted compilers compiling trusted software and executing trusted instructions on the tamper-proof CPUs, running on trusted computers connected to trusted networks. And then, still wondering if the eye of Sauron is watching you, or if those nude pictures of your girlfriend made it to the web–again.

Also, keep in mind some of these attacks on privacy are more insidious than they seem. One way to undermine encryption is to undermine the public’s trust in it. You don’t need a back door to do that. In fact, all you have to do is keep saying “back door” in virtually any context and many people will become apathetic and stop using it.

Anonymous Coward says:

New headlines for this article

James Comey Says ‘Dozens’ Of Terrorists Have Eluded The FBI Thanks To Motor Vehicles.

or

James Comey Says ‘Dozens’ Of Terrorists Have Eluded The FBI Thanks To Aeroplanes.

or

James Comey Says ‘Dozens’ Of Terrorists Have Eluded The FBI Thanks To Pencils and Paper.

or

James Comey Says ‘Dozens’ Of Terrorists Have Eluded The FBI Thanks To Electricity.

or

James Comey Says ‘Dozens’ Of Terrorists Have Eluded The FBI Thanks To Books.

or

James Comey Says ‘Dozens’ Of Terrorists Have Eluded The FBI Thanks To Cross Border Traffic.

All of the above and any other variations make just as much sense. The real reason is

James Comey Says ‘Dozens’ Of Terrorists Have Eluded The FBI Thanks To Our Own Incompetence at Investigating Crime.

That One Guy (profile) says:

What a unique and not in any way familiar problem...

“When they find a live one, they will move them off Twitter, and move them to an end-to-end encrypted messaging app,” Comey said. He said without a court order, the FBI could not read such encrypted message traffic.

It must be hard for the government spy agencies, I mean, it’s not like encryption or private messaging has ever occurred before…

“When they find a live one, they will move them off the phone/mail, and move them to in-person, private talks,” Comey said. He said without a court order, the FBI could not plant bugs to listen in.

People, including criminals of various types, have been able to communicate privately without someone listening in before this point, and yet somehow society and the world yet remain intact. They don’t get to outlaw and bar private communications just because they’re not being allowed to satisfy their voyeuristic fetishes without the involvement of a court.

saulgoode (profile) says:

Was he misquoted (or paraphrased)?

When they find a live one, they will move them off Twitter, and move them to an end-to-end encrypted messaging app,” Comey said. He said without a court order, the FBI could not read such encrypted message traffic.

Without a court order, the FBI should not be reading message traffic whether it’s encrypted or not.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Was he misquoted (or paraphrased)?

When they find a live one, they will move them off Twitter, and move them to an end-to-end encrypted messaging app,” Comey said. He said without a court order, the FBI could not read such encrypted message traffic.

I would like very much to know just exactly how Mister Comey knows this to be true when he admits that he cannot follow the “live ones” and their “trainers” onto the “end-to-end encrypted messaging app, without a court order”.

Did the agency just get a court order.
If that is so, then what is the problem?

If that is not so, then how the hell does Comey know where the Terrorist Recruiters take their recruits?

Anonymous Coward says:

This going dark narrative has been a complete disaster for the USG because if you even look at it slightly closely the whole thing just crumbles into pieces.

Encryption is a direct common sense result of a government breaking their own 4th amendment domestically and more broadly arbitrarily spying on the worlds global internet traffic.

At this point if it’s not encrypted, your doing it wrong.

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