Defense chief: Encryption standoff could let China, Russia 'write the rules'

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Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter warned Tuesday that if Silicon Valley and the government do not work together to solve the encryption debate, the U.S. risks allowing countries such as Russia or China to set standards on their own terms.

“It's easy to see the wrong ways to go about this. One would be a law hastily written in anger or grief. Another would be to have the rules written by Russia or China,” he said in remarks delivered at the RSA security conference in San Francisco.

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“Failing to work together would risk letting others set the standard on their terms and according to their values, and that wouldn't be consistent with our values and it wouldn't be good for U.S. businesses either,” he said.

Technologists have long warned that if the U.S. outlaws unbreakable encryption, criminals will simply shift their communications to one of the many secure products made in other countries — and pushing legitimate users nervous about their privacy away from U.S. manufacturers.

FBI Director James Comey tried to downplay those fears on Tuesday.

“Potentially people could say, 'I love this American device but because I’m worried about a judge ordering access to it, I’m going to buy this phone from a Nordic country.' That could happen. I have a hard time seeing it happen a lot, but it could happen," Comey told the House Judiciary Committee. 

Carter praised strong encryption, noting that the Department of Defense is the largest user of encryption in the world.

The defense head's remarks come as Apple is locked in a standoff with the government over access to the locked iPhone of one of the San Bernardino terrorists.

The FBI is demanding that the company create a piece of software disabling a key security component on the device so that investigators can hack into it. Apple — backed vociferously by Silicon Valley at large — argues that creating such software is tantamount to putting a “backdoor” in all of its products that malicious hackers would then be able to exploit.

While the FBI insists that such access is critical to its investigation of the deadly terrorist attack and would be limited to only a single phone, critics have warned it would set a dangerous precedent.

The case is seen as representative of the tense debate over whether the U.S. should allow unbreakable encryption that has largely divided the technology industry and the government.

Law enforcement argues that the technology stymies the execution of valid search warrants, effectively shielding terrorists and other criminals. Technologists and privacy advocates say that strong encryption is critical to keeping everyday users of the Internet safe.

Carter did not comment specifically on the Apple case on Tuesday, but he did note that “future policy shouldn't be driven by any one particular case.”