Barr Calls on Tech Companies to Allow Law Enforcement to Access Encrypted Data

WASHINGTON — U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr called on U.S. technology companies to give law enforcement "secure legal access" to encrypted data as a way to provide "greater safety to the public."

Barr said there is "no substitute" for being able to listen to and read criminals' digital communications.

"If we lose the ability to conduct electronic surveillance or to access digital records, we will inevitably be driven to greater and greater regimentation of society in order to secure ourselves. In turn, we will lose our liberty as well as our privacy. That is an extremely high price to pay if we prioritize impenetrable encryption above all else," Barr said on Friday at the Lawful Access Summit on warrant-proof encryption and its impact on child exploitation cases.

"I do wish to give credit where credit is due. Some tech companies have taken significant steps to help detect and report criminality. When it comes to preventing crime, we hope that industry will continue to be an ally, not an adversary. We hope that the power of technology will provide greater safety to the public, not place us at greater risk of harm and exploitation," he added.

Barr said the U.S. technology industry should be able to provide encryption for user data and legal access to data for law enforcement at the same time.

"We think our tech sector has the ingenuity to develop effective ways to provide secure encryption while also providing secure legal access and it's well past time for some in the tech community to abandon the indefensible posture that a technical solution is not worth exploring, and instead turn their considerable talent and ingenuity to developing products that will reconcile good cybersecurity to the imperative of public safety and national security," Barr said. "As Microsoft’s Bill Gates has observed, 'there’s no question of ability; it’s a question of willingness.' Obviously, the Department would like to engage with the private sector in exploring solutions. The time to achieve that may be limited."

Barr continued, "As this debate has dragged on and deployment of warrant-proof encryption has accelerated, our ability to protect the public from criminal threats is rapidly deteriorating. The status quo is exceptionally dangerous, unacceptable, and only getting worse. It is time for us to stop debating whether to address it, and start talking about how to address it."

United Kingdom Secretary of State for the Home Department Priti Patel, Australian Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, and Barr wrote a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking him not proceed with Facebook's "plan to implement end-to-end encryption across its messaging services without ensuring that there is no reduction to user safety and without including a means for lawful access to the content of communications to protect our citizens."