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FBI director says iOS and Android privacy features put users 'above the law'

FBI Director James Comey on Thursday responded to the latest attempts from Apple and Google to lock down their respective mobile operating systems, saying he is "very concerned" that the new systems limit or prohibit deemed lawful government access.



In an interview with the Huffington Post, Comey revealed that he has discussed the matter with representatives from both Apple and Google, noting that while personal privacy is important, access to sensitive information may one day be vital to national security.

"I am a huge believer in the rule of law, but I am also a believer that no one in this country is above the law," Comey said. "What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves above the law."

The statement comes on the heels of Apple's recent announcement that new security features in iOS 8 make it technically impossible for the company to decrypt on-device data, even if law enforcement agencies provide the proper warrants.

"Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data," Apple said on a webpage dedicated to privacy policies. "So it's not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8."

The secure system is based on encryption keys, which are no longer stored by Apple off-site, meaning the only way to access an iPhone's contacts, photos, messages and more is by keying in the appropriate lock code. It should be noted that any information sent to iCloud or other servers are fair game for government data requests.

Answering calls from privacy advocates —and controversy surrounding the leak of nude celebrity photos stored on iCloud —Apple recently modified its stance on personal device and services security. Initial indications that Apple was moving to a hardline position came last November when the company published a report outlining received government data requests. In May, Apple said it would routinely post similar reports throughout the year to keep customers up to date with the latest news.

Part of the issue for Comey is how these new features are being marketed to consumers, which in the case of Apple specifically targets U.S. agency requests for data.

"Google is marketing their Android the same way: Buy our phone and law-enforcement, even with legal process, can never get access to it," he said.

For now, it appears that no action will be taken to retract Apple's iOS 8 strengthened security protocols, but Comey offers a warning that the new policy could result in dire repercussions for the public.

"There will come a day —well it comes every day in this business —when it will matter a great, great deal to the lives of people of all kinds that we be able to with judicial authorization gain access to a kidnapper's or a terrorist or a criminal's device," Comey said. "I just want to make sure we have a good conversation in this country before that day comes. I'd hate to have people look at me and say, 'Well how come you can't save this kid,' 'how come you can't do this thing.'"