NSA chief takes sides in encryption battle

The head of the National Security Agency is echoing the Obama administration’s call for some kind of legal mechanism to force companies like Apple and Google to leave holes in people’s digital protections.

NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers  — a cryptology expert who led the Navy’s cyber efforts — said on Monday that he shares concerns about automatic encryption tools that prevent the government from gaining access to phones and other devices, despite fears about technical “backdoors” that could be used by foreign hackers as well as police.

“’Backdoor’ is not the context I would use,” he said during an event at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. “When I hear the phrase “backdoor” I think ‘This is kind of shady, why wouldn’t you want to go in the front door?’”

“My view is we can create a legal framework for how we do this,” he added, that respects companies’ desires to protect their users while allowing his agency and others to access data that might help to solve crimes or stop terrorist attacks.

“I hope we can get past this [mentality that] either it's all encryption or nothing.”

Top cyber experts and critics of government snooping have disagreed. It would be impossible to create a technical system that would allow only the NSA or the FBI to gain access to someone’s encrypted messages without also creating a weakness that could be exploited by spies in China or Russia and hackers throughout the globe, they say.

Rogers was challenged on the point during Monday’s event by Yahoo’s chief information security officer, Alex Stamos.

“It sounds like you agree with [FBI] Director [James] Comey that we should be building defects into the encryption in our products so that the U.S. government can decrypt communications,” he said, in a testy exchange.

“That would be your characterization, not mine,” retorted Rogers.

In a high profile speech last year, Comey condemned the recent tech company trend to automatically encrypt users’ data so that no one — not even the government — can gain access without their permission. The actions would help criminal go free, he said, and called for an update to a 1994 wiretapping law to force companies to be able to hand over information.

The call has been backed by President Obama, but has nonetheless met some resistance on Capitol Hill.