Well protected? The FBI has been increasingly outspoken in its opposition to ubiquitous encryption of Apple and Google products. Photograph: Alamy
Apple, Google, other tech giants and a number of noted cryptologists have signed a letter to the Obama administration urging the US government to preserve strong encryption against pressure from law enforcement and surveillance agencies.
The letter argues that “strong encryption is the cornerstone of the modern information economy’s security,” and that the government should “fully support and not undermine efforts to create encryption standards [nor] in any way subvert, undermine, weaken or make vulnerable” commercial software.
It was obtained by the Washington Post in advance of its publication on Tuesday. The letter is also signed by three members of Obama’s five-person review group set up in 2013 to reassess technology policy in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks that summer.
Richard A Clarke, one of the review group signatories, made a comparison to a failed attempt to institute back doors in the phone network in the 90s. “If they couldn’t pull it off at the end of the cold war, they sure as hell aren’t going to pull it off now,” he told the newspaper.
Law enforcement agencies such as the FBI have been increasingly outspoken in their opposition to ubiquitous encryption. In October, the bureau’s director, James Comey, slated the decision of Apple and Google to turn on encryption by default.
With the launch of iOS 8, “the information stored on many iPhones and other Apple devices will be encrypted by default”, Comey told the Brookings Institute in Washington DC last year. “Shortly after Apple’s announcement, Google announced plans to follow suit with its Android operating system. This means the companies themselves won’t be able to unlock phones, laptops and tablets to reveal photos, documents, email and recordings stored within.”
Comey said: “At the outset, Apple says something that is reasonable – that it’s not that big a deal … Apple argues, for example, that its users can back up and store much of their data in ‘the cloud’ and that the FBI can still access that data with lawful authority. But uploading to the cloud doesn’t include all of the stored data on a bad guy’s phone, which has the potential to create a black hole for law enforcement.”
In response to such fears, many, including the British prime minister, David Cameron, have suggested that firms could build back doors in to their encryption – special weaknesses which allow law enforcement and surveillance agencies to break into otherwise secure connections. But the security industry is adamant that such back doors are technologically infeasible.
Due to the nature of modern encryption, “there is no way to put in a back door or magic key for law enforcement that malevolent actors won’t also be able to abuse”, argues the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jeremy Gillula.