WASHINGTON, May 22, 2014 - At the Senate Judiciary Committee's oversight hearing on the FBI on Wednesday, FBI Director James Comey faced scrutiny over the agency's ability to balance national security and civil liberties in light of technological advancements.
Among issues discussed were cyber threats and surveillance programs that acquire data on a massive scale. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., recognized that while new technologies allow for "new opportunities to bring criminals to justice," it also risks "unwarranted government intrusion."
Comey stressed that cyber security has become something that touches everything the FBI is involved with.
"Cyber is not a thing, it's a vector," Comey said. "Because we as Americans have connected our entire lives to the Internet, the people who do us harm in all aspects of our lives, that's where they come - for our children, for our secrets, for our money, and our infrastructure."
He likened the evolution of cyberspace to the combination of asphalt and the automobile, which allowed criminals to travel great distances very quickly and accomplish many ills on the same day. He described John Dillinger's crimes as trivial next to the potential of cybercrime today.
"John Dillinger couldn't do a thousand robberies on the same day in all 50 states in his pajamas from halfway around the world," Comey joked. "That's the challenge we now face with the Internet. It is a challenge that we at the FBI are trying very hard to respond to: to attract, retain, and train great people."
He also emphasized the importance of training state and local law enforcement in the use of new cyber-technology to combat online theft. He echoed Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley's warning that as enemies of the state upgrade their technology, national security agencies need to be fully prepared to fight.
"The challenge we face with cyber is that it blows away all concepts of time and space as a venue and requires us to shrink the world just the way the bad guys have," he said. "We're going to treat this as seriously as someone kicking in your door to steal your stuff.
In addressing many of the senators' concerns about governmental overreach, Comey conceded, "I believe people should be suspicious of government power. I think people should ask me, 'what are you doing and why?' I hope...I can explain why I need the ability to execute lawful court order, intercept communications -- why, for example, I need the ability to track down a bad guy through the cell tower. It helps me save children, rescue kidnapped victims"
"There's an angel in those details," he said.
Comey said that the FBI only uses national security letters for for the most basic form of investigation, and are not used to collect data in bulk.
Many of the senators expressed concern over the FBI's ability to hack into computers to spy and collect data.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, asked about provisions of the law that could potentially allow the FBI to subpoena contents of email after it has circulated the internet for 180 days.
Comey said that agency policy dictates that a warrant must be obtained based on probable cause before data can be searched.
While Grassley and Leahy expressed concern over the FBI's lack of transparency and proper communication, many others thanked Comey for the FBI's crackdown on computer hacking and economic espionage.
The indictment of five Chinese military hackers and the arrest of individuals involved in cyber-stalking software called Blackshades were hailed as achievements for the bureau.