Tech, libertarian groups up pressure on Obama on encryption

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Industry advocates, libertarian groups and conservative organizations had strong words on encryption for the White House Wednesday.

In two separate letters, a major tech trade group and a libertarian-leaning coalition pressed President Obama to publicly support strong encryption, even if it locks out law enforcement officials.

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“As organizations committed to free markets and limited government, we urge your administration to take a clear stand in support of the individual’s right to protect his or her security and privacy with strong encryption technology,” said one letter, signed by groups like TechFreedom and the Niskanen Center.

“Regardless of good intentions, any efforts to undermine the security and effectiveness of strong encryption are misguided, shortsighted, impractical and ultimately counterproductive,” said a second letter from Ed Black, CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), which represents major tech players like Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft.

The letters come a week after privacy advocates and digital rights groups officially petitioned the White House to take the same stance.

The combination has created a unique and powerful coalition pressing the White House on encryption.

The Obama administration has been considering possible proposals that would give law enforcement guaranteed access to encrypted communications. Silicon Valley, privacy advocates and technologists have pushed back against this, arguing any such access makes encryption vulnerable to hackers and cyber spies.

Officials have countered that without access, investigators may not be able to get legitimate data on criminals and terrorists, even when armed with a warrant. The prospect poses a threat to national security, they say.

“Yes, encryption can indeed help terrorists and criminals to communicate in secret,” said the libertarian-leaning coalition’s letter. “But the mere possibility of nefarious agents abusing these tools does not automatically justify banning them. Encryption economic benefits far outweigh its potential costs.”

In recent weeks, leaked memos have shown the White House is considering backpedaling from its desire for a technological solution that would let investigators bypass encryption.

Privacy advocates have jumped on these signals, collecting signatures on a petition that would require the White House to publicly respond to a call for it to support full encryption.

As of Wednesday, the appeal had collected over 48,000 signatures in nine days. It needs 100,000 in 30 days to trigger a reply.

With Wednesday’s two letters, the White House is under even more pressure to respond.

“History will likely judge that one of the most important developments of our era was the development and evolution of the Internet,” Black said in CCIA’s letter. “Whether it becomes an enduring positive empowering force for human freedom or a tool for surveillance, censorship and control of the individual is yet to be determined.”