FBI Director James Comey said Thursday that new federal laws may be required to break the privacy technology contained in the iPhone and other devices.
Comey said it's impossible to track or trap terrorists and other criminals because it can't break the technology even with court approval.
Companies like Apple and Google are caught in the crosshairs. Comey said they're both good companies, responding to what consumers want. But he thinks Apple and Google are unintentionally giving the bad guys tools to do evil.
An estimated two out of every three Americans use a smartphone, but the FBI is complaining that privacy policies by smartphone makers are making it impossible for them to tap into text messages, photos or other data.
Some companies, such as Apple, have taken a strong stand on consumer privacy. Its newest operating system turns on encryption by default that requires a user's password that even Apple doesn't know.
Silicon Valley technology analysts think the FBI is going to face strong resistance.
"It basically says everybody is going to make themselves, their information totally available to the FBI for the sake of catching some tiny percentage of the population that might be doing something wrong," Gartner Senior Research Analyst Van Baker said.
Comey argued that secure smartphones help criminals, from murderers to terrorists, to elude detection. He called for a national conversation about government access.
"We are not seeking to expand our authority to intercept communications. We are struggling to keep up with changing technology," Comey said.
"This is an issue that's going to keep coming up time and time again as the government wants more oversight into what we're doing, but people are a little leery of giving that," CNET Senior Writer Shara Tibken said.
Apple's position is clear.
CEO Tim Cook posted on the company website: "Apple has never worked with any government agency from any country to create a back door in any of our products or services. We have never allowed any government access to our servers, and we never will."
But some smartphone users say the access issue will be difficult to resolve.
"I mean, if they use it for good things, I can see it being OK. But banking and stuff like that, a lot of people don't trust the government and things that are out of their hands," San Jose State University student Erin Todd said.
"When it comes down to things such as murder or a very serious case, it should be available to the FBI or whoever is investigating to get the information they need," student Nick Csongor said.