Tech Companies & Civil Liberty Groups Seek to Get Obama Off the Fence

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

November 4, 2015

Tech companies and civil liberties groups are supporting a petition in hopes of derailing the efforts of US government law enforcement agencies to grant themselves easier access to encrypted communications. Despite campaigning (twice!) as the champion of privacy and transparency, Obama has been curiously silent on the issue. It’s almost as if he wants to see which way the wind is blowing!

Unfortunately, it will probably take a large domestic act of terrorism for him to get off the fence. But then, another national election is looming (albeit one in which he will not be running) and well, 100,000 signatures on a petition signals 100,000 potential votes… a number not to be sneezed at, election year or not.

For your information, 100,000 is the magic number of signatures needed on a petition under the “We the People” protocol, created in 2011 to provide “a clear and easy way for the American people to petition their government.” Once a petition gains 100,000 signatures, it is guaranteed a response. This petition, published on, demands that Obama,

Publicly affirm your support for strong encryption [and] reject any law, policy, or mandate that would undermine our security.

As a regular reader here, you may be aware that FBI director, James Comey, has been championing the installation of “backdoors” to encryption that would enable law enforcement easy access to communications. He has been arguing for years that tech companies’ use of strong encryption has been thwarting agencies’ efforts to hinder terrorists and criminals activities.

Thus far, Comey and his cohorts have stopped short of pushing for legislation mandating encryption that is law enforcement-friendly. A right-wing Congress may be amenable to such legislation if Obama would be supportive, but up until now he has been his rhetorical old self – talking a good game for strong encryption, while doing nothing about it.

The arguments for granting law enforcement easy access appear compelling. The image of a terrorist attack, ostensibly enabled because some government agency was kept in the dark, resonates with lawmakers and citizens alike. On the other hand, building backdoors or “golden keys” for law enforcement, while forgetting that terrorists also have ample resources to gain access, is being naive.

So, waving the national security argument in lawmakers faces in order to whip them into line is not likely to succeed. And if Obama gets on the stronger encryption bandwagon, the chances of passing laws mandating backdoors will become slim indeed.

Amie Stepanovich, the US policy manager for digital rights group Access Now, an organization spearheading the petition (along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation) said,

More than 100,000 users have now spoken up to ask the administration to make a strong statement in support of data security — no back doors, no golden keys, no exceptional access. We thank those who have stood with us and look forward to President Obama’s response.

If the past is prologue, then she may have a long, uncomfortable wait. This White House does not have an exactly enviable track record when it comes to taking a controversial stand – either in domestic or in foreign policy matters. We’ll keep our fingers crossed, however.

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