SecuritySecurity Management

White House Refuses To Support Draft Encryption Bill

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Google + Linkedin Subscribe to our newsletter Write a comment

Obama refuses to enter debate surrounding controversial draft bill, that will require tech firms to help crack encryption

President Obama has refused to support draft legislation that would require technology companies to help law enforcement crack encryption.

The White House refusal to enter the debate surrounding the controversial bill comes after the FBI dropped its insistence that Apple help it unlock the iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino terrorists after the bureau was able to access content thanks to a ‘third party’.

No Backing

AirbusThe draft legislation is being proposed by Senators Richard Burr and Dianne Feinstein, the leading Republican and Democrat on the US Senate Intelligence Committee. The bill, which is expected to appear in a draft format as soon as this week, proposes to penalise tech firms if they refuse a court order to help law enforcement unlock encrypted data.

It is thought that tech firms could either be slapped with civil penalties such as contempt of court or fines, for refusal to co-operate with law enforcement. But President Obama has declined to offer public support for the long-awaited legislation, Reuters reported. It quoted sources familiar with the discussions.

The White House has reportedly reviewed the text and offered feedback on the draft bill, but is expected to provide minimal public input, if any.

The White House’s refusal to back the bill means that the draft law would unlikely make it through the US House of Representatives, as it has previously strongly supported digital privacy in the wake of the NSA spying activities as revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Over the past year Obama and the White House has backed down on its support for an encryption backdoor after strong opposition by Silicon Valley.

President Obama had previously made no secret of the fact that he wanted access to encrypted messages, and he has asked tech companies to allow the government to break that encryption when necessary.

But last June a number of leading technology companies including Google, Apple, IBM, Microsoft and Facebook wrote a strongly-worded open letter to Obama, calling for him to respect the privacy rights of consumers by not weakening encryption systems.

Clipper Chip

It should be noted that this is not the first time that the US government has sought to crack encryption, but has been forced to back peddle.

Back in the 1990s, President Clinton was forced to back down after his administration attempted to force tech firms to install the so called “Clipper chip” into all PCs, so that the NSA could monitor all encrypted conversations.

But tech firms are hardening their stance on the issue.

This week for example, Facebook-owned WhatsApp switched on complete encryption of its service – and now cannot get access to customer messages even if was ordered to by a court.

WhatsApp already supported end-to-end encryption on its Android app since November 2014, but now the service will be available across all its platforms, included the desktop-focused WhatsApp Web.

Are you a security pro? Try our quiz!