According to a latest report published by Washington Post, more than 140 American tech companies including, but not limited to Google and Apple, have signed an open letter to President Barack Obama urging the US government to support strong data encryption in the face of mounting pressure from law-enforcement, investigative and surveillance agencies like the FBI, the NSA, the Justice Department and the CIA. Co-signatories to the letter include, among others, a number of noted cryptologists, civil society members and even three out of five members of President Obama’s five-person review group set up in 2013 to reassess technology policy after Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s infamous PRISM program.
The letter, to be sent to the President on Tuesday, appeals to the Obama administration to protect the privacy of citizens by not giving in to the demands of law enforcement officials including FBI director James B. Comey who has been sharply critical of companies like Apple and Google for developing and implementing highly secure encryption that makes it difficult for law enforcement to gain access to communication and locally stored data. Mr. Comey has, in the past, argued passionately against technology, which implements end-to-end encryption thereby allowing users to communicate without any concerns for privacy breach. The letter argues that “strong encryption is the cornerstone of the modern information economy’s security” and hence, the government should “fully support and not undermine efforts to create encryption standards”. The letter goes on to urge the President not to “in any way subvert, undermine, weaken or make vulnerable” commercial software by inserting ‘backdoors’ which can then be exploited by hackers and rogue governments.
Speaking on the suggestions of Mr. Comey and other like-minded law enforcement officials, Kevin Bankston, policy director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute and one of the prominent members to have drafted the letter, said, “It’s time for Obama to put an end to these dangerous suggestions that we should deliberately weaken the cybersecurity of Americans’ products and services. It’s time for America to lead the world toward a more secure future rather than a digital ecosystem riddled with vulnerabilities of our own making”. One of the signatories to the letter and a member of President Obama’s review group, Mr. Richard A Clarke, drew a comparison to a failed attempt to introduce backdoors in the American phone network in the 90s, ostensibly for security reasons. “If they couldn’t pull it off at the end of the cold war, they sure as hell aren’t going to pull it off now,” he told Washington Post. Even Mr. Vint Cerf, the co-creator of TCP/IP protocol came out strongly in support of strong data protection earlier this month, saying “If you have a back door, somebody will find it, and that somebody may be a bad guy. Creating this kind of technology is super, super risky”.
While the Obama administration has denied that the U.S. government wants weaker encryption, questions continue to persist because of the President’s reluctance to admonish or hold back his law enforcement officials from going out of their way in demanding compliance from tech companies in the absence of any legislation enacted by the Congress.