Our summary

In the war of public opinion regarding privacy and government intrusion into our lives, the corporations are winning for the moment. This has allowed them the latitude to thumb their fingers at the Feds when it comes to requests for access to individual’s records and devices. Armed with the knowledge provided by Edward Snowden, companies are more reluctant than ever to cooperate with government agencies, much to the chagrin of the authorities.

In a recent case the US government, seeking information about suspects’ cellphone messages, was told that Apple could not cooperate with them because the text messages were encrypted. This has long been a worry for the government – that enhanced encryption would keep them in the dark and increasingly at the mercy of the tech companies, resulting in them being bogged down in a plethora of court cases. Such are the stakes in the post-Snowden era.

George J. Terwilliger III, a Justice Department official for 20 years who now works as a laywer who represents technology companies, explained to the New York Times that “It’s become all wrapped up in Snowden and privacy issues.”

The matter is further complicated by the indecision and ineffectiveness of the White House, which has failed to communicate a clear direction in the battle of wills. At the heart of the issue is that reducing encryption standards will make companies more vulnerable to penetration by foreign governments such as Russia and China. Also, as one tech industry expert put it,

If you put a key under the mat for the cops, a burglar can find it, too. [If criminals or countries] know there’s a key hidden somewhere, they won’t stop until they find it.

Today’s political landscape has changed, largely due to Snowden’s revelations of NSA impropriety. As a result, companies eager to maintain customer loyalty have been battling efforts to grant the government access to their communications and, at the same time, seeing greater demand for built-in encryption.

This is cast against a background painted by government agencies such as the FBI, which is denouncing enhanced encryption as dangerous and damaging to their crime- fighting efforts. As Sally Yates, deputy attorney general, told Congress this summer,

It’s important that we do not let these technological innovations undermine our ability to protect the community from significant national security and public safety challenges.

Law enforcement is particularly wary of first is end-to-end encryption in which conversations and data are securely encrypted by the user on their own phone (not by Apple etc.) and can only be decrypted by the intended recipient. It is this type of encryption that law enforcement decries when it worries about the dreaded “going dark” scenario.

And so the battle lines have been drawn, and are not likely to be crossed very soon as both sides- the government and the corporations – are dug in for the long haul. In the meantime, there is the constant ebb and flow of court cases and regulatory changes which confuse and confound everyone, especially the public. What the consumer ultimately wants is to know the score, that what they’re buying is safe and protected, or to what extent it isn’t and is vulnerable. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

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