Apple reportedly pushes back on government efforts to decrypt messages

Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) is continuing to push back against government protestations that its decision to encrypt messages from end to end via its newest software for iPhones will stifle law enforcement agencies' ability to stop crimes and save lives, according to a Wall Street Journal report. The report comes as Facebook's (NASDAQ: FB) WhatsApp unit said it will encrypt the messages of its users on Android phones so the messages can't be decoded when stored or traveling between phones.

According to the Wall Street Journal, which cited unnamed sources, at a meeting last month Deputy Attorney General James Cole, the Justice Department's No. 2 official, told Apple executives that Apple's stance could lead to a tragedy like a kidnapped child dying because law enforcement could not access a suspect's messages. Apple has said that even if it is served with a court order it does not have the key to unscramble messages encrypted on its iPhones.

The report said the meeting ended in a standoff, and Apple executives thought the scenario Cole described was overblown. Apple argued that law enforcement officials could obtain the same kind of information they want from Apple elsewhere, including from carriers, backup computers and other phones.

The news represents the latest back-and-forth between tech companies and law enforcement officials on the topic. Last month FBI Director James Comey said in a speech that contact lists, photos and other data stored on cell phones needs to be accessible to law enforcement and suggested that attempts by companies like Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Apple to encrypt all that data take things too far.

Comey said new Apple and Google encryption schemes would "allow people to place themselves beyond the law." Apple has said its new iOS 8 software prevents anyone other than the user from accessing user data stored on the phone when it is locked. Google has adopted a similar encryption scheme for Android 5.0, its newest mobile software.

Robert Hannigan, the head of GCHQ, the UK's version of the National Security Agency, wrote in the Financial Times earlier this month that U.S. technology companies "have become the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals, who find their services as transformational as the rest of us."

The tech companies have been pressing for more security and encryption in the wake of revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that the NSA scanned Internet traffic extensively. The NSA's program collected Internet data and was authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has said that his company should not be in the business of handing over customer data to law enforcement agencies directly. "Look, if law enforcement wants something, they should go to the user and get it," he said at a WSJ technology conference in October. "It's not for me to do that."

The report said that at the meeting with Cole, Apple was represented by General Counsel Bruce Sewell and two other employees, and Cole told the Apple officials they were marketing to criminals. Sewell countered that Apple wasn't marketing to criminals, but to ordinary consumers who want to protect their data, especially consumers outside the U.S. fearful of government snooping. Apple said Congress could pass a law requiring all companies that handle communications to provide a means for law enforcement to access the communications.

Meanwhile, WhatsApp said it won't be able to help law enforcement decipher messages sent on Android phones, and that the latest version of WhatsApp's Android app automatically encrypts messages. The encryption does not apply to group messages or media messages.

For more:
- see these two separate WSJ articles (sub. req.)
- see this Bloomberg article

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