FBI director James Comey's recent Senate hearing saw him address various significant issues, including his opinions on encryption, National Security Letters (NSLs), his thoughts on having potentially affected the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election by releasing a letter on the agency's investigation into Hillary Clinton and more.
The FBI director faced some hard questions but also took the opportunity to renew his support for a law against encryption – an issue that saw the FBI go head to head with Apple in 2016 and lose. Comey also hinted at the necessity for the renewal of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa), a controversial law that allows the NSA to intercept Americans' emails and messages without a warrant. It is set to expire at the end of the year.
Here's a list of the 5 major topics that Comey spoke about during the hearing.
Comey once again voiced his support for a law against encryption, hinting that although the FBI had to concede defeat to Apple in the past, the agency still holds hope that new legislation may be introduced under the Trump administration that may enforce tech firms to decrypt data for law enforcement.
"I could imagine a world that ends up with legislation saying if you are going to make devices in the United States you figure out how to comply with court orders," Comey said during the hearing. "Or maybe we don't go there."
"We all love privacy, we all care about public safety and none of us want backdoors — we don't want access to devices built in in some way. What we want to work with the manufacturers on is to figure out how can we accommodate both interests in a sensible way," said Comey in response to a question from Senator Orrin Grant Hatch about the security risks of backdoors being built in to enable access to encrypted data.
"We weren't picking on Apple in the San Bernadino case," Comey added referring to the court battle between the FBI and the tech giant over the San Beranrdino shooting case. "There were real reasons why we needed to get into that device — and that is true in case after case after case. And that is why we have to figure out a way to optimize those two things: privacy and public safety."
"We can't lose 702", Comey said stressing how important the law is in terms of national security.
When asked in what way Section 702 is vital to US intelligence efforts, Comey responded, "Really bad people around the world, because of the genius of American innovation, use our products and infrastructure for their emails, for their communications. And what 702 allows us to do is quickly target terrorists, weapons of mass destruction proliferators, spies, cyberhackers, who are using our infrastructure to communicate, to target them quickly and collect information on them. And it is vital to all parts of the intelligence community, because of its agility, its speed and its effectiveness."
Comey also addressed the issues surrounding Russian hacking. Comey answered "Yes" when asked by Republican senator Lindsey Graham, if Russia "actively" provided safe harbour to cybercriminals and if Russia was "still involved" in American politics.
Comey brought up the massive Yahoo hack to explain how the Kremlin has "a relationship that's often difficult to define with criminals." He added, "You had some of Russia's greatest criminal hackers and intelligence agency hackers working together."
Comey highlighted how current laws allow the FBI to serve NSLs to enforce telephone companies to provide user data but that law does not extend to internet service providers. Comey called for the US Congress to "fix" this typo in the law, expanding the powers of NSL to include tech firms as well.
"I don't think Congress intended that distinction, but what it does do is in our most important investigations it requires us that if we want to find out the subscriber info to a particular email to go and get an order from a federal judge in Washington as part of the FISA court. An incredibly long and difficult process. And I'm worried about that slowing us down — and I'm also worried about it being a disincentive for our investigators to do it at all," Comey said.
Clinton investigation letter
Comey was taken to task by US lawmakers, who questioned him about his decision to release a letter to the US Congress, just 10 days before the presidential election, which detailed that the FBI had found new emails in connection to Hillary Clinton's private email server scandal.
"It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election, but honestly, it wouldn't change the decision," Comey said, adding that it had been "one of the world's most painful experiences".
WikiLeaks dealing in 'intelligence porn'
Although Comey refrained from confirming whether the FBI currently has any pending charges on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, he said he believed that the organisation endangered "both" US lives and US interests.
"To my mind it crosses a line when it moves from being about trying to educate a public and instead just become about 'intelligence porn,' frankly, just pushing out information about sources and methods without regard to interest, without regard to the First Amendment values that normally underlie press reporting — and simply becomes a conduit for the Russian intelligence services or some other adversary of the U.S. just to push out information to damage the U.S," Comey said, voicing his opinion on how WikiLeaks' work differs from journalism.