A high-stakes battle over data privacy intensified Tuesday as technology companies including Apple and Google lobbied President Barack Obama to reject any law enforcement proposal that weakens the encryption of customer data.
As The Washington Post reports, senior law enforcement officials including FBI Director James Comey have been warning that encryption could threaten public safety by denying law enforcement access to data and communications. They have expressed particular concern about products such as Apple’s iMessage instant-messaging software.
But in a letter to Obama obtained by the Post, more than 140 tech companies, cybersecurity experts, and former government officials urged the president to “reject any proposal that [requires] U.S. companies [to] deliberately weaken the security of their products” and to develop policies that “will promote rather than undermine the wide adoption of strong encryption technology.”
“Strong encryption is the cornerstone of the modern information economy’s security,” the letter said.
Encryption “protects billions of people every day against countless threats,” according to the letter, and the Obama administration, faces a critical choice: Will it adopt policies that foster a global digital ecosystem that is more secure, or less? That choice may well define the future of the Internet in the 21st century.”
The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies unanimously concluded in a December 2013 report that the U.S. government should support the use of encryption. But law enforcement officials have warned that encryption on applications like iMessage enables criminals to communicate with each other without fear of law enforcement oversight.
“There’s no doubt that all of us should care passionately about privacy, but we should also care passionately about protecting innocent people,” Comey said recently.
Some forms of smartphone encryption offered by Apple and Google are now so secure, the Post noted, that law enforcement agencies can’t get access to a user’s data — even with a warrant.
Obama said in February that he probably leaned “further in the direction of strong encryption than some do inside of law enforcement. But I am sympathetic to law enforcement because I know the kind of pressure they’re under to keep us safe.”
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