Obama backs call for tech backdoors

President Obama wants a backdoor to track people’s social media messages.

The president on Friday came to the defense of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for tech companies to create holes in their technology to allow the government to track suspected terrorists or criminals.

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“Social media and the Internet is the primary way in which these terrorist organizations are communicating,” Obama said during a press conference with Cameron on Friday. 

“That’s not different from anybody else, but they’re good at it and when we have the ability to track that in a way that is legal, conforms with due process, rule of law and presents oversight, then that’s a capability that we have to preserve,” he said.

While Obama measured his comments, he voiced support for the views expressed by Cameron and FBI Director James Comey, who have worried about tech companies’ increasing trends towards building digital walls around users’ data that no one but them can access.

“Because this is a whole new world, as David says, the laws that might’ve been designed for the traditional wiretap have to be updated,” Obama said. “How we do that needs to be debated both here in the United States and in the U.K.”

Cameron caused a stir in recent days by demanding that technology companies such as Google, Apple and Facebook allow ways for the government to get around encryption technologies to protect against possible security threats.

In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris last week, Cameron has warned against companies' moves to block out government officials or criminal hackers.

“We’re not asking for backdoors,” he said on Friday. “We’re asking for very clear front doors through legal processes to help keep our country safe.”

Last year, Comey made a similar call and urged the Congress to update a 1994 wiretapping law to give official access to new modes of communication.

Cybersecurity experts who have criticized the call for a “golden key” to allow government officials to crack all encyrption technology have said that there is no real difference between a “back” and “front” door around the technology. The same weaknesses that would allow the government to track a suspected terrorist could also be exploited by criminals or officials in Russia and China, they say.

Tech companies have maintained their insistence that the tools are critical to protecting people’s privacy from malicious hackers and snooping governments alike.

“Just as governments have a duty to protect the public from threats, Internet services have a duty to our users to ensure the security and privacy of their data,” Michael Beckerman, the head of the Internet Association, said in a statement ahead of the joint press conference. The trade groups represents Facebook, Google and other tech giants.

“That’s why Internet services have been increasing encryption security, and that’s why government access to data should be rule-bound, transparent, and tailored,” Beckerman added.

Earlier on Friday, Cameron visited a local startup hub in Washington, in an apparent attempt to show an understanding of the tech community.

He asked the people there, "What can the U.K goverment do to help? What are things that we can do better?" said Jasper Graham, the senior vice president of cyber technologies and analytics at U.K.-based Darktrace, who attended the meeting.

Cameron chatted with several smaller U.K. cybersecurity firms breaking into the U.S. market. During that conversation, Cameron mentioned he thought his encryption comments this week have been taken out of context.

Cameron told the group that “he wasn’t trying to say encryption is bad and ban it everywhere,” Graham said.

“It was about building a partnership between private sector and government,” said Graham, who spent 15 years with the National Security Agency. “About how to have those conversations so that when you take someone who’s willing to do harm, how does encryption work?”

—  Cory Bennett contributed