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FBI wants 'adult' conversation about 'going dark' encryption debate

FBI Director James Comey wants to have an 'adult' conversation on the encryption debate, but many think that means ignoring experts and embracing the 'going dark' argument.

FBI Director James Comey wants to slow down the encryption debate, and he has asked people on both sides of the issue to take the rest of the year to gather information in order to have an "adult conversation" on the topic in 2017.

At the 2016 Symantec Government Symposium in Washington, D.C., Comey said, "The conversation we've been trying to have about this has dipped below public consciousness now -- and that's fine, because what we want to do is collect information this year, so that next year, we can have an adult conversation in this country."

Comey agreed the American people have the right to privacy in private spaces -- including electronic devices -- but he said that right is not absolute, and that veil of privacy should be pierced when law enforcement has probable cause. Comey said the issue was less technological and more ideological.

"The FBI's role has never been to tell people how to live. Our role is simply to say, 'Those tools you were counting on us to use to find people in criminal cases, in national security cases, they are less and less effective every day because of this change,'" Comey said. "But it's also not the job of tech companies, as wonderful as they are, as great as their product is, to tell the American public how to live."

However, the reaction to Comey's comments has been swift, questioning what an "adult conversation" might entail and why Comey might think the encryption debate hasn't been "adult" so far.

Nate Cardozo, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, based in San Francisco, said Comey doesn't really want an adult conversation.

Some, such as tech lawyer Richard Goldberg and Robert Graham, CEO of Atlanta-based Errata Security, said the problem is in Comey's perspective on the issue.

Trevor Timm, executive director at Freedom of the Press Foundation, hoped the adult conversation would include experts.

And Matthew Green, cryptography professor at Johns Hopkins University, wondered if Comey would ever find a satisfying resolution to the "going dark" encryption debate.

Next Steps

Learn more about the proposed encryption debate commission.

Find out why privacy vs. public safety is central to the 'going dark' debate.

Get the more nuanced take on the encryption debate from the RSA Conference.

Dig Deeper on Disk and file encryption tools