Obama administration changing tune on encryption

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The Obama administration is backing away from a call for Congress to pass a law that would require companies to decrypt data when compelled by a warrant.

Officials are even considering whether to support widespread encryption that could lock out investigators, The Washington Post reported.

The FBI and Justice Department have long been pressing Congress and the tech sector to solve what they call the “going dark” problem, in which encryption prevents companies from being able to access customers’ communications for law enforcement officials.

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The fear, as repeatedly outlined in speeches and congressional testimony over the last year, is that criminals and terrorists are increasingly able to operate in a zone of privacy without the worry of being discovered.

But according to documents obtained by the Post, the tide is turning within the administration. Officials across multiple agencies are now pushing for President Obama to disavow a legislative solution and instead support universal strong encryption.

These encryption advocates believe the move would help mollify tense relationships with overseas governments that believe the U.S. is bent on expanding its surveillance capabilities. The group also thinks public support for robust encryption would help U.S. tech companies, which have lost business overseas amid fears they are subject to intrusive U.S. surveillance programs.

Such a reversal would be a major win for technologists, Silicon Valley and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, who have all been hammering the administration over what they see as a lack of support for total online privacy.

These privacy hawks have long argued that any guaranteed access to encrypted data — whether through a pre-installed “backdoor” for law enforcement or through the company decrypting the data itself — would simply weaken security measures protecting people’s sensitive data.

“Robust encryption allows for privacy for individuals,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who represents parts of tech-heavy San Jose, told The Hill last week. “Obviously the government would like to get into individual’s private information, but if you build in flaws to the encryption, it’s available not just to the government, but to China, to hackers.”

In response to such an argument, law enforcement officials over the past year have slightly changed their tune. Instead of pressing for a legislative fix, officials such as FBI Director James Comey have starting urging Silicon Valley to invent a fix.

“I really believe we have not given this the shot it deserves,” Comey told the House Intelligence Committee during a hearing last week.  

According to the Post, these security leaders within the government are still holding firm to their belief that the government should be able to access emails, text messages and online communications when armed with a warrant.

The disagreement has set up a standoff within the government over how to proceed.

The White House was expected to release a paper with several options over the summer, but the report never publicly surfaced.

“The complexity of this issue really makes it a very challenging area to arrive at any sort of policy on,” a senior official told the Post, explaining the delay.