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FBI director calls for restart of smartphone encryption debate

FBI Director James Comey appears ready to relaunch the debate about encryption legislation with tech companies before "something terrible happens," and alters the course of the discussion.

Speaking before the International Conference on Cyber Security in New York City last week, Comey says that governmental discussions will have to wait until the 2017 inauguration of a new president. "At some point encryption is going to figure into a major event in this country," Comey claimed. "We've got to have this conversation before that happens, because after that, the time for thoughtful reflection will be significantly reduced."

Comey said at the conference that he would have rather had the encryption debate with tech companies behind closed doors. However, also noted that he did understand why Apple chose litigation as a venue to start the conversation.

Of the 4,000 cellphones seized as potential evidence in the first six months of 2016, the FBI has been unable to break into 500 of them.

"Nobody has the high ground. Nobody is the Devil," Comey said, repeating a previous statement. "In this conversation, we all share the same values."

While cellphone whole-device encryption has been a problem for law enforcement since implementation, the debate took center-stage in the beginning of 2016. Investigators found a county-owned iPhone in the belongings following the December San Bernardino shootings, and were initially unable to penetrate the device. The FBI requested Apple assistance in unlocking the phone, and the judge attempted to compel Apple to do so.

In the midst of the encryption battle and hours before a schedule court hearing, the FBI found an alternate way to penetrate the iPhone. The hack cost the agency more than $1.34 million, according to Comey. No useful data was found.