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FBI Official to Tech World: Try to Understand Us


FBI General Counsel James Baker (left) is interviewed by Newseum CEO Jeffrey Herbst (right) during the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festivals in Austin, Texas. (T. Trinh/Facebook)

So what was the FBI doing at the South by Southwest Conference and Festivals in Austin, Texas, primarily known for music, movies and interactive media?

James Baker, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's general counsel, took the stage at a hotel in Austin, Texas, on Monday to present a human face to the issues of encryption and cyber security. He talked about the quandaries law enforcement grapples with in the digital age.

The FBI has been in the center of a maelstrom over Wikileaks disclosures about CIA practices, foreign government election tampering and whether President Donald Trump was subject to a wiretap when he was a presidential candidate.

Baker steered clear of those topics. Instead, he focused on an issue near to the heart of the tech-focused attendees: encryption of devices.

Still fresh in the audience's minds was the San Bernardino, California, terror attack in 2015 that led to a standoff between law enforcement and Apple over one of the iPhones used by one of the attackers.

The FBI sought Apple's help in getting access to the mobile phone. Apple balked, arguing that strong encryption was important to protect privacy. In the end, the government dropped its legal efforts to force Apple to open the phone and reportedly found other ways into the device.

But the case highlighted disagreements within American society, Baker said. In the last three months of 2016, the FBI received more than 2,000 devices from law enforcement agencies seeking access. The FBI had no solutions in nearly half of the devices.

"This is happening all the time," he said. "It's impeding investigations."

While the questioner Jeffrey Herbst, chief executive of Newseum, spoke to Baker, audience members asked questions on Sli.do, a web-based Q&A and polling platform for live events.

Their focus showed an interest in the FBI's greater maelstrom: "Is there any evidence that foreign governments tried to impact the campaign?" asked one questioner.

Baker did not address any questions on the issue but spoke broadly about security in the digital age.

"We have to do a better job at explaining the cost of having better encryption," Baker said.

He suggested that lawmakers might break down the complex topic of encryption and look for areas where they can make progress, such as carving out new rules for devices law enforcement has in its possession to allow access. "What we don't want to do is wait for an event to happen," he said.

In the end, Baker said that the American people need to hold the FBI accountable and be skeptical about what it does, but also invest the time to understand the issues.

"The FBI has to deal with the reality of what is," he said. "Not what we wish it to be."

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