DHS head warns encryption a problem for national security

Obama administration officials are not backing away from a controversial stance on encryption that has frustrated lawmakers and the tech industry.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson defended the administration's stance in a speech in Silicon Valley, arguing that tougher encryption by tech firms imposed in the wake of the National Security Agency's spying scandal will make it tougher to stop crime.

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“The current course we are on, toward deeper and deeper encryption in response to the demands of the marketplace, is one that presents real challenges for those in law enforcement and national security,” he said Tuesday at the RSA Conference, one of the world’s largest annual cybersecurity gatherings.

“Encryption is making it harder for your government to find criminal activity, and potential terrorist activity,” Johnson said.

President Obama has tried to walk a fine line — supporting strong encryption while promoting some type of legal framework that gives government access to data.

Obama’s officials at the FBI, DHS and National Security Agency have been more direct about their stance.

“Let me be clear,” Johnson said. “I understand the importance of what encryption brings to privacy. But, imagine the problems if, well after the advent of the telephone, the warrant authority of the government to investigate crime had extended only to the U.S. mail.”

The government can obtain warrants to wiretap phones.

Officials fear encryption has created situations in which the government can’t access digital data even when armed with a warrant.

Justice Department officials gave Apple a chilling warning last fall when meeting with the company to discuss its encryption: a child would die because police won’t be able to get into a suspect’s iPhone.

Johnson put it simply: “Our inability to access encrypted information poses public safety challenges.”

The White House is reportedly preparing a report, expected later this month, that would outline various options to ensure law enforcement can bypass encryption during criminal or national security investigations.

“We in government know that a solution to this dilemma must take full account of the privacy rights and expectations of the American public, the state of the technology, and the cybersecurity of American businesses,” Johnson said.

And Silicon Valley can play a role, he added.

“We need your help to find the solution.”