White House will not seek law allowing law enforcement access to encrypted messages

The Obama administration has decided not to seek legislation which would require tech companies to design their devices in a way which would give law enforcement agencies access to individuals’ encrypted messages, the White House said on Saturday. The tech industry, led by giants Apple, Google, Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft, has mounted a vigorous campaign opposing any administration moves to weaken ever-more-sophisticated encryption systems which are designed to protect consumers’ privacy.

The Obama administration has decided not to seek legislation which would require tech companies to design their devices in a way which would give law enforcement agencies access to individuals’ encrypted messages, the White House said on Saturday.

“As the president has said, the United States will work to ensure that malicious actors can be held to account, without weakening our commitment to strong encryption,” Stroh said. “As part of those efforts, we are actively engaged with private companies to ensure they understand the public safety and national security risks that result from malicious actors’ use of their encrypted products and services. However, the administration is not seeking legislation at this time.”

Stroh reiterated comments by FBI director James Comey, who appeared before a Senate committee on Thursday, that the administration would not seek a bill allowing it to crack encrypted information.

Comey stressed, though that “Changing forms of Internet communication and the use of encryption are posing real challenges to the FBI’s ability to fulfill its public safety and national security missions,” Comey said.

The tech industry, led by giants Apple, Google, Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft, has mounted a vigorous campaign opposing any administration moves to weaken ever-more-sophisticated encryption systems which are designed to protect consumers’ privacy.

The New York Times reports that the White House’s decision not to pursue legislation to force tech companies create “back doors” in their devices for law enforcement to use, is based, among other things, on fears that recent massive breaches of government data bases — the Office of Personnel Management and the Internal Revenue Service, among other agencies — demonstrated that encrypted information is unsafe in government hands, and would be vulnerable to hackers – including Russian and Chinese government hackers.

The FBI and the NSA said that mandating back-door access was essential for fighting crime and terrorism — Comey said that the encryption Apple now offers iPhone users is comparable to the creation of a door no law officers could enter, or a car trunk they could not unlock — but the White House, after a year of study and extensive debate, has reached a broad conclusion that an effort to compel the companies to give the government access would fail, both politically and technologically.

“This looks promising, but there’s still going to be tremendous pressure from law enforcement,” Peter G. Neumann, one of the nation’s leading computer scientists and a co-author of a paper that examined the government’s proposal for special access, told the Times. “The N.S.A. is capable of dealing with the cryptography for now, but law enforcement is going to have real difficulty with this. This is never a done deal.”

In the paper, released in July, Neumann and other leading cryptographers and computer scientists argued that there was no way for the government to have a back door into encrypted communications without creating an opening that would be exploited by Chinese and Russian intelligence agents, cybercriminals and terrorist groups (see “Privacy vs. security debate intensifies as more companies offer end-to-end-encryption,” HSNW, 9 July 2015).

President Obama has said he understands the concerns of law enforcement officials, and during a visit to Silicon Valley in February he said he was also aware of privacy concerns and that the administration was seeking to balance both interests.

Technologist and encryption experts responded that, with regard to encryption, no such balance existed. “The real problem is, I don’t see any middle ground for dumbing down everything to make special access possible and having the secure systems we need for commerce, government and everything else,” Neumann told the Times.

 

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