Attorney General William Barr renewed the longstanding feud between law enforcement and tech companies over the issue of encryption on Tuesday, arguing that companies are jeopardizing authorities’ ability to prevent major crimes.
Speaking at Fordham University’s International Conference on Cyber Security, Barr said it was “dangerous” and “unacceptable” that tech companies’ use of encryption to keep users’ data safe from hackers and foreign governments is impeding law enforcement’s ability to access communications after a warrant has been issued.
“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 said.
Citing several criminal cases where law enforcement was unable to access communications despite having a warrant, Barr said that encryption “seriously degrades the ability of law enforcement to detect and prevent crime before it occurs.”
Barr cited the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting of 2015, which led to a legal standoff with Apple after the FBI was unable to access the messages of an ISIS sympathizer, who killed 14 people, on a locked iPhone. Eventually the FBI purchased a third party walk-around to access the messages.
“Given the frequency with which these situations are now arising, it is only a matter of time before a sensational case crystalizes the issue for the public,” Barr said.
The speech rankled online civil libertarians, who have argued for years that if tech companies are forced to build exceptions or backdoors into encryption communications systems, it will creates a hole that not just law enforcement, but also hackers and malicious governments could exploit.
“Once you weaken encryption with a backdoor, you make it far easier for criminals, hackers and predators to get into your digital life,” Senator Ron Wyden, a longstanding encryption advocate, said in response to Barr’s statement.
Barr echoed former FBI Director James Comey’s stance on the issue, saying it was a problem the American tech community could solve.
“We think our tech sector has the ingenuity to develop effective ways to provide secure encryption while also providing secure legal access,” Barr said.
His remarks have not gone down well with some in Silicon Valley.
“This kind of speech doesn’t do well with the tech community,” a senior employee at a major American tech company who requested to not be named in order to speak freely, told CNN.
“If you want us to work with you, come to us in a collaborative fashion, not with threats and hyperbole,” the employee said. “Comey has gone down this path. He started out having adversarial tactics with encryption and got nowhere with that strategy.”