In Depth

Obama Retreats On Encrypted-Data Law Push

It looks as though the tech industry has gained a win in the ongoing battle over access to consumer data transmitted via smartphones and digital devices, with President Barack Obama’s administration announcing it will not seek new laws granting government access to this encrypted information, Reuters reported.

The move, which has been controversial in the tech community, would have forced technology companies and mobile device manufacturers to create “backdoors” to the source codes and encryption keys currently safeguarding data on consumer devices.

But White House officials seem to agree with those opposed to the potential legislation who argue opening the door to this encrypted information for the U.S. government to access could also leave the data vulnerable to hacking.

“As the President has said, the United States will work to ensure that malicious actors can be held to account, without weakening our commitment to strong encryption,” said Mark Stroh, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

“As part of those efforts, we are actively engaged with private companies to ensure they understand the public safety and national security risks that result from malicious actors’ use of their encrypted products and services. However, the administration is not seeking legislation at this time.”

[bctt tweet=”US government pumps the brakes on moving to grant itself access to encrypted consumer data “]

In June tech giants such as Google, Apple and IBM came together to urge the government not to roll back encryption systems in the wake of a strong and quite public debate over mass surveillance.

The companies — represented by two trade groups including the Information Technology Industry Council and the Software and Information Industry Association — issued a letter opposing “any policy” that would “undermine encryption.”

While the latest development may be good news for the tech industry, the conversation about access to encrypted information is far from over. It looks as though the struggle to find a balance between protecting national security and protecting user privacy is only going to get more complicated.

“This looks promising, but there’s still going to be tremendous pressure from law enforcement,” Peter Neumann, computer scientist and co-author of a paper examining the implications of providing the government with backdoor access to data, told The New York Times.

“The NSA is capable of dealing with the cryptography for now, but law enforcement is going to have real difficulty with this. This is never a done deal,” Neumann confirmed.

As Reuters noted earlier this year, two overarching issues remain at odds: Companies are being entreated by government agencies to allow access “past” encryption defenses in order to investigate possible illegal activities and suspected individuals, while at the same time not compromising encryption to the point where systems can be hacked.

Weakening sophisticated encryption systems could come with devastating effects, including opening the door to more massive cyberattacks like the data breach that rocked the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) this year, leaving millions of sensitive government records exposed.


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