By DINESH RAMDE
MILWAUKEE (AP) — The government can fight computer crime without compromising Americans’ privacy rights, the head of the FBI said Tuesday, comparing government monitoring to a police department that stations an officer at a gang-infested park to make it safe for children and families once again.
FBI Director James Comey was in Milwaukee to visit local law enforcement officers as part of an effort to visit all 56 of the agency’s field offices. He met with reporters afterward, taking questions about FBI efforts to target violent crimes, stem the tide of heroin abuse and combat human trafficking.
He was also asked about cybersecurity issues, including the Target Corp. data breach and recent revealing of the Heartbleed glitch, which has caused major security concerns across the Internet. He was asked how the government balances fighting crime with respecting Americans’ liberty.
Comey said he rejected the idea that liberty and security can’t co-exist. He said security improves liberty by getting rid of people who would do harm, leaving more freedom for citizens who use the Internet for legitimate reasons.
The Internet is “where children play, it’s where our social lives are, it’s where our health care is, it’s where our money is. Everything is there — and so that’s where bad people come to get those things,” he said. “… The Internet is a dangerous neighborhood. We need to be there to patrol it. And by being there in a responsible, lawful, carefully overseen way, we can enhance both security and liberty.”
Comey declined to answer questions about the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance efforts revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, saying he was only in a position to discuss his own agency’s practices.
He said citizens are right to be skeptical of government power, and that he, himself, shares that skepticism. He said Americans should demand to know the details of government activities: Are communications being gathered legally? Were warrants obtained properly? Are the legal efforts part of a legitimate criminal investigation?
But he said questions should be asked the other way, too. For example, if someone criticizes the fact that the government wants to be able to break encryption, people should challenge that criticism.
“What would the world be like if the FBI, with lawful court authority, could not break encryption and find someone who’d kidnapped a child, or find a gangster, or find some monstrous criminal because we could not break encryption?” he said. “So what I urge people to do is demand the details, demand answers from me and then listen to the answers, and let’s have a healthy discussion. Because you should be skeptical.”
Reporters, however, often encounter a different reality. Questions to local FBI press officials are often deflected with statements along the lines of, “We can’t discuss that because it’s part of an active investigation.” Comey was asked how that reality reconciles with his belief that the public should demand answers.
Comey drew a distinction between asking about specific investigations and about general FBI policy. He said most FBI press people are instructed to not discuss ongoing investigations because doing so could help bad guys get away or discredit innocent people who were investigated and later cleared.
“We will never talk about a pending investigation for those two reasons,” he said. “(But) we’ll talk until we’re blue in the face about our authorities, how the rule of law is intrinsic in the way we conduct ourselves.”