FBI lead lawyer at SXSW: Encryption remains vexing

Posted March 13th, 2017

While praising it for protecting Americans’ privacy, FBI General Council James Baker said that personal encryption remains vexing to the FBI.

“The Bureau supports strong encryption. It is a good thing for the government and it’s a good thing for the country, Baker said. “It has huge benefits but some costs. Those costs come to us that have to protect public safety.”

Baker on Monday acted as understudy for FBI Director James Comey, who was to be one of the marquis speakers during this year’s South by Southwest Interactive festival. Comey dropped out last minute citing scheduling conflicts that led Baker to sign on for a conversation with Jeffrey Herbst, CEO of the Newseum.

“(Comey) had some other people that wanted to talk to him today in Washington D.C.,” Herbst said, eliciting laughter from the packed audience. 

The use of encryption, especially in smartphones, has become a hot button issue since the FBI’s very public fight with Apple over the company’s refusal to help the agency access encrypted communications on an iPhone associated with the San Bernardino shooting.

The FBI ended up getting access to the phone without Apple’s help, presumably using a third party to hack it. In the wake of Wikileaks’ Vault Seven document dump last week, the government’s tacit acknowledgement that does employ software vulnerabilities to break into personal devices has made hacking phones a topic du jour at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive conference.

Baker wouldn’t talk about the CIA or Wikileaks, but he said the FBI faces challenges with encryption that lead to more riskier tactics, like inserting undercover agents within criminal organizations.

“You’re putting real actual people in danger, and it slows down investigations,” he said.