National Security

From Apple to ISIL: FBI Director on How Technology is Changing Security

April 21, 2016  • Homeland Security Program

Key Points

  • FBI Director James Comey discusses how technology is a double-edged sword when it comes to national security issues.

Above: watch Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey and Financial Times Companies Editor Brooke Masters discuss the complexities of today’s security challenges, and how the FBI is working both at home and with global partners to confront them at the 2016 Aspen Security Forum: Global.

In an evolving world, the nature of terrorism – and the ways that countries like the United States deal with it – has changed quickly. According to FBI Director James Comey, new technology has fundamentally shifted the ways that terrorists operate, and the way that the FBI responds.

“The shift from our parent’s Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State (ISIL) has all happened in my tenure,” said Comey.

Comey said that as recently as 2013, the FBI was focused on disrupting the Al-Qaeda model: sophisticated, long-planned attacks that involved extensive surveillance, carefully vetted operatives, and were aimed at symbols of the west. For the United States, that meant attacks in high-profile areas.

“Just shooting people in a restaurant would have been seen as a weakness for them, a loss of face,” said Comey.

However, in 2014 came a fundamental change: the growth of ISIL, whose mission was different. They simply want to attract anyone to their caliphate, and are indiscriminate with their violence. According to Comey, people who are typically sympathetic to ISIL are people who Al-Qaeda would never have chosen for their terrorist activities: drug users, mentally ill people, or people with criminal records.

It’s not only the nature of the violence that has fundamentally shifted, but also the way that the Islamic State communicates with its followers: the way that they send their message makes Al-Qaeda look dated.

“They push out their message on Twitter and crowdsource it in a way that resonates with troubled souls – messages constantly appearing at their hip, buzzing 24 hours a day: come, or kill for us. And to make it more complicated, they then move people off of the open platform on Twitter and onto an encrypted app, where their action becomes invisible,” said Comey.

That encrypted phase is the most dangerous: the FBI has to act with great urgency once a conversation “goes dark” and they can no longer see the interactions between ISIL and a would-be terrorist. Comey says that the content of their communication is crucial.

“We just don’t know – are they going to go and kill people in a restaurant tomorrow? Or three weeks from now? We can’t tell who’s involved, if they have bombs, what’s happening.”

Dealing with terrorism on these new platforms is wrapped up in the tensions between privacy and security, which is a conversation that Comey says needs to be further explored in the United States. There are billions of users on encrypted communications platforms, which, he says, includes a significant number of terrorists and criminals. While encrypted communications platforms are wonderful for human rights activists, or perhaps people operating in despotic regimes, Comey says the privacy comes with a cost.

“People have to take the time to understand how and why … we [conduct surveillance.] It’s very hard for us to get permission to do this, as it should be. I love privacy! I’m a huge fan of strong encryption. But we also have to keep people safe. And so we have to know what people are talking about.”

This tension between security and privacy plays a big role in other spheres of Comey’s work as well – like in the litigation battle with Apple to unlock the cell phones of the San Bernardino suspects, or as far back as 20 years ago, when the government began requiring banks to monitor and report suspicious transactions from their customers. Comey says that how the FBI resolved the Apple litigation – by essentially paying for a solution to be able to break into the device – is not how he wants the organization to be operating in the future. He admitted that the cost of the tool was “more than I will make in the remainder of this job, which is seven years and four months, for sure. As calculated by the Washington Post based on Comey’s salary, the FBI paid more than $1 million to crack the iPhone.

“That’s a backwards way to approach it, and it’s not scalable,” Comey said.

There are over 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, said Comey, who all find similar issues affecting their work. He is hoping to arrive at a solution that does not involve hacking.

“This is a fundamental question about how we want to be. Our job is to say how it is affecting our work, and it’s a conversation we must have … all of us share a set of values that are in conflict, and we have to figure out how to resolve privacy and security on the internet, and on our devices with public safety – and they are crashing into each other. In terrorism cases, in all the work that the FBI does. And we need an answer.”