FBI Director James B. Comey sharply criticized Apple and Google for developing forms of smartphone encryption so secure that law enforcement officials cannot easily gain access to information stored on the devices — even when they have valid search warrants.
His comments were the most forceful yet from a top government official but echo a chorus of denunciation from law enforcement officials nationwide. Police have said that the ability to search photos, messages and Web histories on smartphones is essential to solving a range of serious crimes, including murder, child pornography and attempted terrorist attacks.
“There will come a day when it will matter a great deal to the lives of people . . . that we will be able to gain access” to such devices, Comey told reporters in a briefing. “I want to have that conversation [with companies responsible] before that day comes.”
Comey added that FBI officials already have made initial contact with the two companies, which announced their new smartphone encryption initiatives last week. He said he could not understand why companies would “market something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law.”
Comey’s remarks followed news last week that Apple’s latest mobile operating system, iOS 8, is so thoroughly encrypted that the company is unable to unlock iPhones or iPads for police. Google, meanwhile, is moving to an automatic form of encryption for its newest version of Android operating system that the company also will not be able to unlock, though it will take longer for that new feature to reach most consumers.
Both companies declined to comment on Comey’s remarks. Apple has said that its new encryption is not intended to specifically hinder law enforcement but to improve device security against any potential intruder.
For detectives working a tough case, few types of evidence are more revealing than a smartphone. Call logs, instant messages and location records can link a suspect to a crime precisely when and where it occurred. And a surprising number of criminals, police say, like to take selfies posing with accomplices — and often the loot they stole together.
But the era of easy law enforcement access to smartphones may be drawing to a close as courts and tech companies erect new barriers to police searches of …