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FBI Director Comey, in visit to Buffalo, offers perspectives on security

FBI Director James B. Comey Jr. likes to compare iPhones with safe-deposit boxes. The difference, he said, is that a judge can unlock a safe-deposit box if there’s a compelling legal reason to do so.

Not so with an iPhone.

Comey, in Buffalo as part of an ongoing global tour of FBI offices, tried to make the case Monday for giving law enforcement better access to iPhones and other encrypted devices, but acknowledged the potential pitfalls.

“We have a big problem with encryption crashing into values,” he told reporters.

Comey knows that the FBI’s legal fight with Apple Inc. is now moot because the agency successfully hacked into the phone of San Bernardino, Calif., gunman Syed Farook, but Comey thinks the debate over encrypted devices should continue.

The conflict between the government’s need to know and an individual’s civil liberties is not going away, he said, and neither is the public’s growing dependence on secure communication systems.

In Comey’s eyes, the solution is to treat iPhones as we treat a person’s home, bank account and, yes, safe-deposit box. If there’s “probable cause” to access the phone, the courts should be able to ensure that access, he said.

“That’s the bargain we struck with our Founders 240 years ago,” he said Monday.

Apple and its supporters have argued from Day One that secure phones are an essential element of personal privacy and safety, not to mention a key ingredient in their products’ appeal and marketability.

Comey touched on a number of topics during his meeting with reporters but declined to comment on the status of the FBI’s investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails. He also declined to comment on news reports that he might personally interview Clinton before submitting a final report to Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.

Clinton, the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, has acknowledged and apologized for using a private email server while she was secretary. Earlier this year, the State Department said 22 emails sent or received by Clinton had been upgraded to top secret but were not marked classified when Clinton sent them.

Comey also offered an updated assessment of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, and said the group’s recruitment efforts in the U.S. seem to be losing steam. And yet it remains a serious terrorist threat. “We continue to open new cases across the country,” he said.

During his daylong visit, the director met with local FBI agents and employees and later with local law enforcement and community leaders.

A native of Yonkers, Comey, 55, is a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan and Virginia. In 2003, he was picked by then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft as deputy attorney general but left after two years to work with defense contractor Lockheed Martin and later a Connecticut-based hedge fund.

Nominated for the FBI job by President Obama, he took over the agency in September 2013, succeeding Robert S. Mueller III, who stepped down after 12 years as director.