FBI Director Comey: “Mission is to get out and talk to the private sector”
Strengthening the FBI’s relationship with the private sector is essential to stemming the frequency and severity of major cyber intrusions and attacks, FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday evening, March 29, at a leadership dinner hosted by the Arlington, VA-based Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA).
Comey expressed a desire for the FBI and industry to work in closer cooperation, saying many companies are still weary of reporting cyber intrusions to law enforcement, hampering their ability to pursue perpetrators and warn other potential victims.
“All the victims are in the private sector, all the indicators are in the private sector, all the evidence, if we want to go (to a criminal investigation), is in the private sector. We are not nearly good enough at getting information from the private sector to us, and getting information from us to the private sector,” he told an audience of 450 INSA members and guests at the Hilton Mark Center in Alexandria, VA.
Comey cited the 2014 cyber attack on the Sony Corporation as an example of how an existing relationship with the FBI can benefit organizations that have suffered a significant breach.
“The Sony attack was a vicious, hugely damaging attack. It would have been worse if they had not invested the time to know us before the attack,” he said.
Comey equated the FBI’s current relationship with the private sector to its experience with the Intelligence Community, which had been reluctant to share information that could be used in public prosecutions.
“It took us 20 years of building trust, case by case by case, until the Intelligence Community came to realize […] we really can trust the FBI to protect our sources and methods. […] That took us two decades to build that trust. It is in a very healthy place today. It is not in a healthy place when it comes to the private sector.”
On a topic of mutual interest and concern for the FBI and the private sector – the utilization of encryption on apps and devices – Comey said he wants to foster an informed public debate. Ubiquitous, default encryption has ushered in an era of “absolute privacy,” Comey said, in which even lawful access to a person’s property can be stymied, challenging the traditional notion of how the U.S. has balanced privacy and public safety.
“That’s a different way to live. If we are going to change the fundamental compact at the heart of this country, it should not be the FBI that does it, it should not be companies that are making amazing devices – the American people should do it,” he said.
In spite of FBI investigations that have put his leadership under intense public and congressional scrutiny, Comey said his early tenure still pales to that of his predecessor, Robert Mueller, whose leadership in the immediate aftermath and investigation of 9/11 began the FBI’s evolution toward a threat-based, intelligence-led organization. INSA will honor Mueller as the 33rd recipient of the William Oliver Baker Award on June 9, 2017.
“I think Bob Mueller’s early tenure was much harder than mine. I’m not just saying that; I think it was much harder. He came in a week before 3,000 people were murdered in our country and then he not only had to oversee the investigation but transform the FBI, and I inherited a transformed FBI,” he told moderator Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
Following his prepared remarks, Comey’s conversation with Leiter covered the FBI’s commitment to nonpartisan investigations, efforts to combat homegrown violent extremism, and steps government and the private sector can take to mitigate the disclosure of classified information, among other topics.
A complete transcript of Director Comey’s remarks and conversation are available here.