FBI Director James Comey named Russia as one of the top cybersecurity threats facing the United States — but avoided any mention of election hacking or any other of the security controversies that have embroiled the Capitol, in his first extended remarks since President Trump’s weekend claims that former President Obama wiretapped his phones.
“I’ll avoid talking about things I don’t want to talk about,” Comey jokingly warned a crowd of public officials, private companies and others at the start of his speech at Boston College’s first annual cybersecurity conference.
Comey today described an “evil layer cake” of cyber threats, topped by countries such as Russia and China. At the bottom, he said, are terrorists who, while having mastered the Internet as a recruitment tool, have not yet “turned to using the internet as a tool of destruction.”
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But as noteworthy during the discussion were the topics that did not surface.
While he flagged Russia as a threat, Comey didn’t delve into the country’s specific capabilities, tactics or recent actions.
Nor did he address the alleged Russian hacking during the election, Wikileaks’ recent dump of CIA documents, or Trump’s tweets that Obama tapped Trump Tower during the election season. Trump has not provided any evidence to back up his allegations.
Comey, according to reports, has pushed back internally. An official told the Associated Press that the FBI has asked the Justice Department to dispute Trump’s allegations, and the New York Times has reported that Comey says the claim should be corrected by the Department of Justice because it wrongly insinuates that the FBI broke the law. Yesterday, the president’s spokesman Sean Spicer said Trump has not spoken to Comey since his accusations.
The FBI director, who faced Democratic calls for his ouster amid his probe into Hillary Clinton’s private email server during the election — and GOP speculation about his future under Trump — today said he hopes to return to future iterations of BC’s conference.
“You’re stuck with me for another 6 1/2 a years,” said Comey, now in the midst of a 10-year term as director.
Speaking a day after Wikileaks revealed the vulnerability of smart TVs and other consumer devices to CIA hacking, Comey used his address to outline the strategies the FBI is using to beat back against cyberattacks, while imploring the private sector to work and cooperate with the feds to better shielf themselves from, and help the FBI investigate, intrusions.
“We have to get better at working with the private sector. You in the private sector are the primary targets … (because) everything sits on your networks,” Comey said. “That’s where the bad guys go.”
Comey also focused part of his speech on the impact encryption has had on the FBI’s ability to investigate crimes. He insisted the FBI isn’t at odds with companies, such as Apple, with whom the bureau brawled over access to the iPhone used by a shooter in the 2015 San Bernardino attacks.
Comey pointed to his own Instagram account — and its nine followers — as a place he wants his own privacy. But he said, “there’s no such thing as absolute privacy in America.”
A 10-minute question-and-answer period by attendees did not include any questions related to Russian hacking or wiretapping.
The event was the second in Greater Boston in two days for Comey. who appeared briefly at a ribbon-cutting yesterday at the Boston FBI’s new field office in Chelsea. He declined to take questions from reporters at both events.
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