The Obama administration has said it doesn’t support draft legislation that will force tech companies to unlock their devices when compelled to by a court order. New bipartisan legislation, co-authored by the leading officials on the Senate Intelligence Committee; which hasn’t been formally announced, would impose fines against tech companies if law enforcement agencies are unable to access data on encrypted devices.
“The administration has decided not to seek legislative remedy now, but it makes sense to continue conversations with industry,” FBI Director James B. Comey said at the Senate hearing Thursday of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The decision, which maintains the status quo, underscores the bind the administration is in; balancing competing pressures to help law enforcement and protect consumer privacy.
“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.” National Security Council spokesman Mark Stroh said. “As part of those efforts, we actively engaged with private companies to ensure that they understand the public safety and national security risks that result from malicious actors’ use of their encrypted products and services.”
“The government should not erode the security of our devices or applications, pressure companies to keep and allow government access to our data, mandate implementation of vulnerabilities, or backdoors into products, or have disproportionate access to the keys to private date,” Savecrypto.org, a coalition of industry and privacy groups that has launched a campaign to petition the Obama administration has said.
According to sources, the White House will not back the legislation, ensuring a political deadlock on encryption issues. The source says that encryption will be controversial and is unlikely to go too far in a gridlocked Congress during an election year. Last month Josh Earnest made remarks saying he was skeptical and lawmakers on Capitol Hill would be able to resolve the matter through legislation.
President Obama has previously said that police and federal agencies should have a way to access encrypted data. A lot of tech companies began leaning towards encryption in the wake of the Snowden revelations, which detailed government efforts to break into systems and networks.
The government’s position isn’t a surprise, given how it has divided the presidents team on this matter, despite the high profile effort by the federal agents to access Farook’s IPhone used in the San Bernardino shooting.
Apple refused t help FBI agents unlock the encrypted phone, arguing that there was no passcode or a way to break the encryption. While many in law enforcement argued that criminals were using encryption to “go dark”, a metaphor the FBI uses to describe its difficulty in accessing communications, some from other government departments, including Homeland Security, and the National Security Agency, joined the pro-encryption lobby.
Chief executive Tim Cook said that there had been “a lack of leadership in the Whitehouse” over encryption. This hasn’t stopped companies from encrypting its products. WhatsApp completed its rollout of end to end encryption for messages, calls, and media to its one billion users.