Magazine article National Defense

Government Officials Conflicted about Encryption

Magazine article National Defense

Government Officials Conflicted about Encryption

Article excerpt

Encryption--which prevents unauthorized users from accessing devices and data--is a double-edged sword, experts have said. While U.S. citizens use the technology to protect personal information, bad actors such as terrorists are employing it to hide illicit activity.

Encryption services are also vitally important to the government, said a panel of department heads in May.

"We know we need it," said Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter during a joint press conference at Intel's corporate headquarters in Santa Clara, California. "We know that strong encryption is part of the solution for the future."

Carter called on companies around the country, including those in Silicon Valley to keep investing in such technology.

"I think it's fair to say that... globally the market for cybersecurity that should exist doesn't yet exist," he said. "But what that says is that there will be a big market for those innovators that get here first."

Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker said encryption is critical to protecting the nation's digital infrastructure.

"Today our entire economy rests on the back of the digital infrastructure," she said. "It's extremely important that we have strong encryption."

But such technology can make it harder for law enforcement to detect criminal activity, said Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson.

The government and the private sector are "interested in finding the right solution that accommodates both strong encryption and enables us to track crime and to track potential terrorist plots for reasons of law enforcement, public safety and national security," he said.

A cooperative agreement is possible and officials are "working very hard on this issue," he said.

Encryption became a hot topic in the United States following a high-profile dispute between the FBI and Apple earlier this year.

Following a deadly shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California, last year the FBI acquired an iPhone 5C that was used by one of the shooters, Syed Farook. The phone--which was owned by Farook's employer--was encrypted and 10 wrong attempts at inputting the passcode would clear the smartphone of its contents.

In February, a federal judge ordered Apple to help the FBI get around this feature and create a backdoor into the device. The company refused, claiming that could set a dangerous precedent. In the end, the FBI was able to break into the phone on its own.

The litigation in San Bernardino was not about trying to send a message or impugning Apple, said James Comey, director of the FBI.

"I don't think anybody should be demonized in this conversation," he said. "It was about trying to confidently investigate a terrorist attack that slaughtered innocent people at an office gathering. That's all it was about."

The FBI had consent from the owner of the phone, a search warrant and, according to a Justice Department lawyer, a valid basis for asking the court to force Apple to help the FBI gain access to the phone, he said.

There needs to be greater dialogue in the United States about the balance between public safety and privacy, Comey said.

"I love strong encryption," he said. "Encryption is a very, very good thing. I also love public safety."

Currently, the two ideas are "crashing into each other," he said in May during an industry conference hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association.

Encryption also became a major issue in 2013 following the revelation that the National Security Agency collected enormous amounts of information about U.S. citizens via its bulk phone metadata collection program. Since then, there has been a major push for encryption on mobile phones, Comey said.

This has had major ramifications for the FBI, he said. Even with court orders, many times agents are not able to access data on encrypted phones. …

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