FBI tells Apple, Google their privacy efforts could cripple investigations

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Apple and Google have won praise from privacy proponents for efforts to encrypt their latest smartphones in a way that would prevent law enforcement from accessing certain private data. The FBI, not so much.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey told reporters Thursday that the agency is talking to both companies to raise concerns that their privacy efforts could hinder criminal investigations.

Apple last week touted that with release of its latest operating system iOS8, it no longer could bypass the smartphone user passwords.

“So it’s not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8,” Apple said in a blog post.

Google quickly followed suit, saying it already had such technology in phones running its Android operating system, but that “as part of our next Android release, encryption will be enabled by default out of the box, so you won’t even have to think about turning it on.”

Comey said that he was “very concerned” that the companies were “marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves above the law.”

Revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden of government mass surveillance programs has posed problems for U.S. tech companies, which are required by federal law to cooperate with surveillance program requests. Concerned that the revelations will damage their businesses, particularly in foreign markets, the companies have taken a more public role in pushing back on the surveillance programs.

Yahoo, which fought a losing court battle against some surveillance requests, recently won a fight to make public secret court documents detailing that battle. The company used the information to tout its efforts to protect the privacy of its customers.

The FBI director said he understood the privacy concerns in the wake of Snowden. But he noted that the FBI sometimes has an urgent need to access data, such as in cases of kidnappings or terrorism.

Comey said he supports the idea that the FBI should have a warrant from a judge to take a look into someone’s closet, or smartphone, but added he couldn’t support “the notion someone would market a closet that would never be open.”

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