White House seeks to break encryption stalemate

Aides to President Obama are preparing a report they hope will spur progress in the debate over government access to encrypted user data.

The report, which staff hope to complete this month, will weigh various approaches to ensuring that law enforcement can bypass encryption during a criminal or national security investigation.

ADVERTISEMENT

White House aides are studying the topic with input from the FBI, four federal departments and several intelligence agencies, according to the Washington Post.

The idea is to sum up actions Obama could take to break the stalemate on encryption between government and industry, which is concerned that guaranteeing government access to users’ devices will invite hackers in.

“We want to give the president a sense of what the art of the possible is,” a senior administration official told the Post. “We want to enable him to make some decisions and strategic choices about this very critical issue that has so many strategic implications.”

The debate is crucial as the number of active mobile devices explodes around the world.

Law enforcement say that encryption presents a new challenge given that, even with a warrant, they may not be able to access crucial pieces of evidence during criminal probes.

Privacy advocates argue that the government should not always have guaranteed access, and that creating a “backdoor” in users’ devices will render them insecure.

Aides to Obama are looking at several ways to bridge that gap.

One proposal from National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers would require tech companies to create a digital key to users’ devices that would be divided into pieces, each held by a different official or agency.

Another approach would require companies to create mirror accounts or create data back-ups that are decrypted and could be accessed by investigators at the order of a judge.