Governments must have access to encrypted devices in order to enforce basic security and tax laws, Obama says
US President Barack Obama has called for communications devices to be built to allow government access to phone data that could help stop extremist attackers and enforce tax laws.
Speaking at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, Obama took the line followed by many government and law-enforcement authorities – that there must be no communications system or device to which governments are denied access.
“If technologically it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system where the encryption is so strong that there is no key, there’s no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer, how do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot?” Obama said.
He said such a system would prevent the enforcement of basic tax laws, amounting to “a Swiss bank account” in anyone’s pocket.
He said a reasonable compromise might be a system with strong encryption but also a “key” accessible to the “smallest number of people possible” that would provide access in important cases – in other words, the “back door” Apple has warned against.
However Obama said he could not speak directly about the legal case pitting Apple against the FBI over a locked iPhone belonging to a suspect in last December’s shootings in San Bernardino, California.
But his comments go directly against Apple’s argument that it should not be obliged to create a “back door” that would bypass the encryption that protects its devices from outside investigation. Such a tool, the company has argued, would inevitably be used by malicious parties, weakening security for all device users.
Notions that such a system shouldn’t be allowed amount to “fetishising” mobile device data, Obama said.
“This notion that somehow our data is different and can be walled off from those other tradeoffs we make I believe is incorrect,” he said.
He cited airport security and roadside stops for drunk drivers as measures that are intrusive but are accepted as a compromise necessary to ensure security. Similar compromises must be made in the area of encryption, he said.
“Setting aside the specific case between the FBI and Apple … we’re going to have to make some decisions about how do we balance these respective risks,” he said. “My conclusion so far is you cannot take an absolutist view.”
Obama’s comments stand in sharp contrast to those of GCHQ director Robert Hannigan, who last week told an audience at MIT that he sees a government encryption bypass system of the kind alluded to by Obama as unrealistic.
Instead, Hannigan said he sees law enforcement and intelligence services working with technology companies on a case-by-case basis to gain access to the data they need.
“I am not in favor of banning encryption, nor am I asking for mandatory backdoors,” he said.
In the San Bernardino case, the FBI won a court order obliging Apple to help it unlock an iPhone belonging to a suspect in the shootings, but Apple has so far refused to comply, arguing the Department of Justice is overstepping the powers given to it by Congress.
Apple has argued compliance would set a dangerous precedent, while the FBI has said the case has only limited implications.
Apple, Google and others introduced encryption into some communications tools following the disclosure of widespread US government data surveillance programmes, and the trend is continuing, with Facebook’s What’sApp planning to introduce encrypted voice calls within the next few weeks, according to a Monday report by The Guardian.
Facebook is also considering increasing the security of its Messenger tool, while Snapchat is working on a secure messaging system and Google is looking to expand the use of an encrypted email project, according to the report.
A recent Harvard University study concluded that the government surveillance opportunities cut off by the recent introduction of encryption in some communications tools are greatly offset by the rise of easily hackable connected devices such as home thermostats and toys, among other factors.
The study found that in spite of the attention attracted by recently introduced encrypted communications services, individuals are likely to become increasingly easy to spy on.
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