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SAUSALITO, Calif. -- As FBI director, James Comey went to war with Silicon Valley over encryption. Now that he's a private citizen, he regrets his tactics -- and wants to turn down the temperature on the heated debate he stoked.
Comey said it was "dumb" to launch the encryption debate by loudly criticizing companies for seeking encryption that would prevent law enforcement access even with a warrant. "I would do that differently if I had the chance," he said at a conference hosted by the Hewlett Foundation last week.
He also spoke warmly of his one-time bitter rival, Apple chief executive Tim Cook, calling him a “good guy.” “We share the same values,” Comey said. “The FBI doesn’t hate Apple. Apple doesn’t hate the FBI. We do a tremendous amount together to protect Apple and to protect the country. Given that we share our values, is there a way to talk about this that doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker? That allows us to grapple together toward a reasonable solution?”
The remarks were a surprising mea culpa from Comey, whose relationship with the technology industry was largely defined by his years-long campaign against end-to-end encryption. He even criticized Silicon Valley executives in his book “A Higher Loyalty," writing that their position on encryption “drove [him] crazy” and joking about how executives sitting in California couldn’t possibly understand the FBI’s position.
But though Comey says he’s since buried the hatchet with Cook, his position on encryption hasn't really changed. While he says he's open to debating all options, he continues to support exploring technical solutions to build in law enforcement access to encrypted data -- and said there was even a prototype for a "split key" model built during the Obama administration.
"One of my frustrations is people say, 'If you grant any access, we’re all going to die.' No we’re not," Comey said. "And so we got to a point where we had a prototype for the president... So the notion that it’s impossible, so we should just never talk about it, is just unfair."
Comey says, "you could build a key that sits with the U.S. government, a key that sits with the maker of that device and a key that sits with a non governmental agency" and a judge could order these keys to be combined to grant access to the data. He argued such a model could still be built despite widespread criticism from technologists who think such a solution would be impossible or insecure.
While the tenor of the encryption debate has died down in Washington since Comey left the J. Edgar Hoover Building, his latest comments are a reminder that it remains unresolved and could easily erupt again. After all, end-to-end encryption is only becoming more prevalent as pressure mounts on the companies to protect consumers’ privacy. Companies such as Facebook are making public commitments to step up their investments in the technology -- even though Mark Zuckerberg himself acknowledges that comes with public safety tradeoffs.
“Even though there’s no huge battle like Apple vs. FBI, people are preparing for it, we’re waiting for it, it’s inevitable,” said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, the chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology.
Comey's encryption battle hit its apex during a high-stakes standoff in 2016, when Apple fought a court order to help the Justice Department unlock an iPhone used by a suspect in the San Bernardino, Calif., terror attacks. Cook and other encryption advocates argued that building a "backdoor" in its tough security measures for law enforcement -- even just once -- would compromise all its users' security and privacy. Ultimately, the FBI paid hackers to crack the phone rather than duking it out in court.
Since then, other tech policy issues like Russia’s campaign to blast disinformation on social media to sow discord ahead of the 2016 elections or corporate privacy scandals have taken precedence over encryption in Washington. But international policymakers continue to debate the issue, with countries like Australia passing contentious laws that technologists say could weaken encryption.
Comey says it’s time for the U.S. to have an “adult conversation” about what’s at stake as more and more devices and services are encrypted. He warns that “broad swaths” of American life are now occurring out of the reach of law enforcement, and he’s worried that the public isn’t talking enough about the implications that could have for society.
“The danger I saw as director and I still see today is we’re just drifting,” Comey said. “We’re drifting to a place -- because we all love our devices -- where we’re all going to wake up and say, ‘Jeez, everything’s different now.’ And I just don’t think a democracy should drift.”
Yet the debate could look a lot different in 2019, after years of high-profile data breaches and privacy scandals have raised public awareness about the importance of consumer data security and privacy.
And as more and more devices get connected to the Internet, pivacy advocates say their arguments that strong encryption is necessary are only more relevant.
“If you don’t have strong encryption not only are you worried about someone reading your email,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director and president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “Now you’re worried about someone unlocking the locks on your home.”
Comey acknowledges this is “the mother of all issues” so arriving at solutions will be no easy task. He recalled that President Obama viewed encryption as one of the toughest issues he faced in the White House, and he said the administration ran out of time to work on the problem.
"He sent us to work in his last year trying to figure out is there a way to reasonably accommodate both kinds of security," Comey said. "We made some progress on that and he ran out of time."
Correction: A previous version of this article cited the incorrect title of Comey's book. It is "A Higher Loyalty."
BITS: Apple and Qualcomm settled their years-long bitter legal dispute over chip patents, my colleague Reed Albergotti reports. The companies will dismiss all litigation worldwide, and the agreement includes a six-year licensing agreement and multiyear supply agreement.
Apple will also make an unspecified payment to Qualcomm, according to a joint release from the companies. Qualcomm's stock was up 22 percent yesterday, a bright spot for a company that has recently struggled and laid off more than 1,500 employees last year.
“This was a major win for Qualcomm as fears of a loss in the courts was a major overhang on the name with Apple going after this IP issue full steam ahead,” Wedbush Securities analyst Dan Ives told CNBC's David Farber and Kif Leswing. “A settlement is a surprise to investors as ultimately Apple realized this was more about two kids fighting in the sandbox and they have bigger issues ahead with 5G and iPhone softness rather than battling Qualcomm in court.”
Hours after Qulacomm and Apple announced the resolution of their dispute, Intel said it dropped its own plans to make modem chips for 5G smartphones, the Wall Street Journal's Asa Fitch reports. That critical component is expected to dominate the phone market over the next several years, and Intel's decision takes a major rival out of Qualcomm's path.
NIBBLES: T-Mobile and Sprint's proposed $26 billion merger faces an uncertain future, according to the Wall Street Journal's Drew Fitzgerald and Brent Kendall. Justice Department staffers told T-Mobile and Sprint that their intended merger is unlikely to be approved, at least as it's currently structured.
"In a meeting earlier this month, Justice Department staff members laid out their concerns with the all-stock deal and questioned the companies’ arguments that the combination would produce important efficiencies for the merged firm," the Wall Street Journal reported.
T-Mobile chief executive John Legere responded to the Journal's report in a Tweet:
The premise of this story, as summarized in the first paragraph, is simply untrue. Out of respect for the process, we have no further comment. This continues to be our policy since we announced our merger last year. https://t.co/3q9CVgkRfv key info: https://t.co/N5YvuuJtPZ— John Legere (@JohnLegere) April 16, 2019
Sprint executive chairman Marcelo Claure also weighed in:
This @WSJ article is not accurate. We continue to have discussions with regulators about our proposed merger with @TMobile. That process is ongoing and we have no further comment. key info: https://t.co/31U7WlGehq https://t.co/QCnPBXh0I8— MarceloClaure (@marceloclaure) April 16, 2019
BYTES: Many tech donors are undecided on who they want to back in the 2020 Demcratic primary -- giving to multiple candidates or none at all, Recode's Theodore Schleifer reports. There's no clear frontrunner in Silicon Valley fundraising, per a fundraising snapshot released Monday, as candidates vie for the tech industry's checkbooks.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) attracted some of the biggest name Silicon Valley donors, including former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff and several top venture capitalists. He also received donations from five executives from Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Alphabet.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) received the most support from employees of Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Alphabet, with eight executives from those companies writing checks. Former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos, Y Combinator chair Sam Altman and tech investor Ron Conway also backed Harris's campaign.
Venture capitalists and prominent executives like April Underwood, previously of Slack, threw their support behind Beto O'Rourke.
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