Attorney General William Barr says big technology companies have to help law enforcement officials investigate terrorists, drug cartels, and other criminal suspects who use encrypted messaging apps.
In an address Tuesday at the International Conference on Cyber Security in New York City, Barr said encrypted and secure "consumer products and services" offered by Apple, Facebook, and other tech firms threaten national security, The Washington Times reported.
Those products include messaging, smartphones, email, and voice and data apps that prevent unauthorized scrutiny of their content.
"By enabling dangerous criminals to cloak their communications and activities behind an essentially impenetrable digital shield, the deployment of warrant-proof encryption is already imposing huge costs on society," Barr declared, the Times reported.
Law enforcement officials have argued encryption thwarts their ability to prosecute criminals and pushed for access in 2015 to the encrypted devices and communications of one of the killers in a terrorist attack that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California. The FBI ultimately found a way to hack into the device.
Barr argued terrorists and cartels were exploiting the technology to plan operations, such as the coordination of murders of Mexico-based police officials.
"The status quo is exceptionally dangerous, it is unacceptable and only getting worse," he said. "It's time for the United States to stop debating whether to address it and start talking about how to address it."
Experts and privacy advocates pushed back.
"A magic decryption wand would surely help them [law enforcement] if one could exist," Georgetown University cryptography professor Matt Blaze tweeted. "But so would time travel, teleportation, and invisibility cloaks. Let's stick to the reality-based world."
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a privacy hawk, called Barr’s remarks "outrageous, wrongheaded and dangerous."
"Many times in the past I have warned that unnecessary government surveillance holds the potential to be abused," Wyden said, The Hill reported.
"But I have never done what I am doing today. Today, I fear — rather, I expect — that if we give this attorney general and this president the unprecedented power to break encryption across the board . . . they will abuse those powers."
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