FBI director James Comey (Pic: Rich Girard, Flickr/Tom Reeve)
FBI director James Comey (Pic: Rich Girard, Flickr/Tom Reeve)

Controversial director of the FBI, James Comey, who has drawn criticism from left and right for his handling of high profile and highly political cyber-security issues, has called for a grown-up conversation about encryption.

At a cyber-security conference at Boston College Wednesday, Comey said he supported strong encryption but bemoaned the obstacles to law enforcement thrown up by encryption, adding that Americans can't expect “absolute privacy”, according to a report in the Boston Globe.

"It is making more and more of the room of what the FBI investigates dark," he said.

The FBI director noted that the agency was not able to open any of the 2800 devices received between September and November of 2016 – and which it legally had the right to open – “with any technique”.

The private sector and law enforcement need to “stop bumper-stickering each other. We need to stop tweeting at each other,” he said.

“This isn't Apple vs. the FBI,” he explained, referring to the battle between the two over access to iPhones, most notably the iPhone 5c belonging to one of the shooters in the San Bernardino terrorist attack. "We need to build trust between the government and private sector."

Comey called for a “really hard conversation about how we want to be,” and with the “understanding that everyone is approaching this debate with an open mind and a genuine respect for the rule of law and for privacy and public safety.”

However, Comey got some pushback from the tech sector which sees encryption as a fundamental tenet of faith.

"If Comey thinks that encryption is increasingly blinding his agency's investigative capability, I will point out that he's trying to peer into the digital footprint of citizens more than ever before,” said Jacob Ginsberg, senior director at Echoworx.

“The amount of information contained on our smartphones and other devices is unprecedented, and creating cryptographic backdoors diminishes trust and weakens the overall security of the technology being used.”

However, Ginsberg added, “I agree with him that we need to engage in a hard conversation, and I certainly hope he invites industry experts, legal scholars, and security specialists to the table so that they can have their voices heard."

Comey's remarks come just a day after WikiLeaks dumped a trove of 8761 documents and files allegedly from an isolated, high-security network situated inside the CIA's Center for Cyber Intelligence in Langley, Virginia. A press release and analysis from the site said the leak allegedly showed the breadth of hacking tools at the CIA's disposal, including malware, viruses, trojans, weaponised "zero day" exploits, malware remote control systems and associated documentation.

The leaked documents were selected from an even larger collection of files, nicknamed Vault 7, which WikiLeaks promised to release over time.