US Tech Firms Warn Obama To Back Off Encryption

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Open letter to President Obama highlights tech opposition to efforts to weaken encryption systems

A group of major American technology companies have appealed to President Obama to respect the privacy rights of consumers by not weakening encryption systems.

Firms including the likes of Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and IBM signed the open letter from the written by the Information Technology Industry Council and the Software and Information Industry Association.

Open Letter

Encryption keyThe strongly-worded open letter is addressed to President Obama, and was also sent to US Secretary of State John Kerry, the director of the FBI James Comey, and Jeh Johnson, secretary of Homeland Security among other US officials.

“We are opposed to any policy actions or measures that would undermine encryption as an available and effective tool,” says the letter. “As you know, encryption helps to secure many aspects of our daily lives. Encryption is an essential asset of the global digital infrastructure, enabling security and confidentiality for transactions as well as assurances to individuals that their communications are private and information is protected.

“Consumer trust in digital products and services is an essential component enabling continued economic growth of the online marketplace,” says the letter. “Accordingly, we urge you not to pursue any policy or proposal that would require or encourage companies to weaken these technologies, including the weakening of encryption or creating encryption ‘work-arounds.’”

US law enforcement have complained in the past that encryption can prevent the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security from examining data during investigations. President Obama has previously recognised the need for privacy, but he has asked tech companies to allow the government to break that encryption when necessary.

Essentially, the President wants US law enforcement officials to have a backdoor for when it thinks there a possible terrorist or criminal risk. That said, the White House has not spelled out any specific regulatory or legislative steps it might seek.

Incidentally, it is thought the NSA and GCHQ already has the supercomputing power to crack 512-bit encryption in just a few minutes. And the NSA is widely believed to be capable of breaking 1024-bit encryption as well.

But the tech industry has been alarmed by these moves and has united in its opposition.

The letter adds that it recognises that law enforcement sometimes have a legitimate need to access data to combat threats and crime, but doesn’t feel that weakening encryption is the answer.

“However, mandating the weakening of encryption or encryption ‘work-arounds’ is not the way to address this need,” it reads. “Doing so would compromise the security of ICT products and services, rendering them more vulnerable to attacks and would erode consumers’ trust in the products and services they rely on for protecting their information.”

Should the US government require companies to weaken encryption technology, such requirements will legitimize similar efforts by foreign governments,” said the letter. “This would threaten the global marketplace as well as deprive individuals of certain liberties.”

European Moves

Such events are already happening on this side of the pond, however. The chief of Europol recently said that the increasing prevalence of encrypted Internet communications is a major difficulty for law-enforcement and national security efforts.

And in April the leading counter-terrorism policeman in the UK said that some tech firms are helping militants avoid detection by developing systems that are “friendly to terrorists”.

In January Prime Minister David Cameron said that he wanted British intelligence agencies to be able to monitor the encrypted communications of terror suspects.

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