Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The agency argues that encryption is making it difficult for police to catch dangerous criminals.

The Obama administration is ramping up its campaign to force technology companies to help the government spy on their users.

FBI and Justice Department officials met with House staffers recently for a classified briefing on how encryption is hurting police investigations, according to staffers familiar with the meeting.

The briefing included Democratic and Republican aides for the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, the staffers said. The meeting was held in a classified room, and aides are forbidden from revealing what was discussed.

It's unclear whether the FBI is planning a similar briefing for Senate aides.

Earlier this month, FBI Director James Comey gave a speech arguing that the "post-Snowden pendulum has swung too far," and that police are often now unable to obtain the information they need for an investigation—even after getting a warrant. As a result, child predators, terrorists, and other criminals could go free, he warned.

The speech was prompted by new policies from Apple and Google to provide default encryption on their phones, making it impossible for the companies to give police access to photos, contact lists, and other data stored on devices.

"The FBI has a sworn duty to keep every American safe from crime and terrorism, and technology has become the tool of choice for some very dangerous people," Comey said in the speech at the Brookings Institution.

The FBI chief urged Congress to enact legislation to require tech companies to create a way for police to spy on their users.

A 1994 law, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, forces telephone companies to build surveillance technologies into their networks to allow law enforcement to install wiretaps. But the law hasn't been updated and doesn't cover new networks and devices.

Comey called for Congress to revise the law to create a "level playing field" so that Google, Apple, and Facebook have the same obligation as AT&T and Verizon to help police.

But the plan faces fierce opposition from tech companies and privacy advocates. They warn that any backdoor for law enforcement could also be exploited by hackers. Forcing U.S. companies to build insecure products will make them less attractive in foreign markets, they claim.

The critics also argue that police often have other ways of legally obtaining information, such as getting warrants for data stored on company servers.

Convincing Congress to enact Comey's proposal will be a tough challenge. In the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks, most lawmakers seem more interested in reining in government surveillance than expanding it.

This piece originally appeared on National Journal, an Atlantic partner site.

More from National Journal:

How Does Clinton Overcome Obama?

Long-Dead Bigamist Congressman Still Haunts South Jersey

Brazil’s Dangerous Climate Spiral

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a map of future climate risks in the U.S.
    Maps

    America After Climate Change, Mapped

    With “The 2100 Project: An Atlas for A Green New Deal,” the McHarg Center tries to visualize how the warming world will reshape the United States.

  2. Perspective

    Why Car-Free Streets Will Soon Be the Norm

    In cities like New York, Paris, Rotterdam, and soon San Francisco, car-free streets are emerging amid a growing movement.

  3. Design

    New York City Will Require Bird-Friendly Glass on Buildings

    Hundreds of thousands of migratory birds smash into the city’s buildings every year. The city council just passed a bill to cut back on the carnage.

  4. Videos

    A Wonderfully Clear Explanation of How Road Diets Work

    Planner Jeff Speck leads a video tour of four different street redesigns.

  5. photo: A man boards a bus in Kansas City, Missouri.
    Transportation

    Why Kansas City’s Free Transit Experiment Matters

    The Missouri city is the first major one in the U.S. to offer no-cost public transportation. Will a boost in subsidized mobility pay off with economic benefits?

×