Black Friday

Obama flip-flops on encryption

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

February 25, 2015

The thorny debate among advocates of personal privacy and those in favor of national security interest is front and center in this ArsTechnica article. President Barack Obama is seen as sitting on the fence on the issue, attempting to straddle it, and therefore trying to appease all constituencies.

If recent history teaches us anything, it is that this administration will continue to curry favor with the law enforcement community over the privacy rights of individuals, and thus continue to be the most privacy-unfriendly administration in history. When his rhetoric contains words like, ’’…I think those in favor of air tight encryption also want to be protected from terrorists”, there is little doubt where his heart lies or where the debate is headed.

In fairness to him, the prickly subject has befuddled many in the Oval Office before Obama, and the present world security situation has seldom been more dire. So it is not unexpected that the president tread carefully, and it must be acknowledged that there will always be a trade-off between civil liberties and national security.

At the same time, however, Obama must acknowledge that his own indecisiveness in Middle East matters has allowed ISIS to supplant Al-Qaida, and is a major reason the US faces such security threats. What must also be considered is that these threats and security breaches have emerged on the back of unprecedented spying on citizen’s communications by law enforcement agencies. Is the answer more surveillance, or better use of the data already gathered and the systems now in place? After all, the historic amount of snooping to date hasn’t deterred terrorists and criminals.

Encryption is at the heart of this latest debate. It became a hot-button topic on the heels of Edward Snowden’s NSA related revelations in the summer of 2013, when his documents, including some seemingly showing that Skype has a backdoor, highlighted a vast online global surveillance network which resulted in a tremendous increase in the effectiveness of encryption companies that also has benefited other industries, such as the VPN industry.

Specifically, both the FBI and Justice Department , fronting for the other alphabet soup of spy agencies, are demanding that companies should build backdoors to allow law enforcement access. Much to theses agencies’ chagrin, companies such as Apple and Google continue to develop technology for mobile devices which provide encryption by default.

Without backdoors, encryption will prevent authorities from physically accessing content directly from phones’ hardware, even with a warrant. Is this too much of an obstacle to overcome in the war on terror and in other criminal matters? It is the crux of the argument – to what extent are criminals to be allowed to avoid detection, and what liberties are we willing to forgo in the hopes of making safety the priority?

Thankfully, at present,US based companies are not required to provide the government with backdoors into their products. This is protected by the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), a law that provides for telecommunications companies to make their phone networks accessible for wiretapping, but not other phone hardware or most other communications services. So, the administration is left to appeal to the tech companies’ sense of patriotism. When in doubt- wave the flag – it never loses its appeal for politicians!

It is the hope here that the tech companies don’t abandon their responsibility to provide strong privacy for their customers, irrespective of world events. They must take the long view – the view that has inspired innovation for centuries. Unlike politicians of every stripe, whose focus is only on the latest poll and the next election cycle…

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