Google, Apple, civil liberties groups press Obama not to break companies' encryption of customer data

Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) and a broad array of civil liberties groups and technology companies are urging President Barack Obama not to embrace policies that would prohibit tech companies from encrypting their customers' data.

Cisco Systems, Facebook (NASDAQ: FB), Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and Yahoo were also among the dozens of companies, human rights groups, trade associations and cryptographers and security experts that wrote a letter to Obama. The letter was first reported by the Washington Post.

Last fall FBI Director James Comey said that contact lists, photos and other data stored on cell phones needs to be accessible to law enforcement, and he hinted that attempts to encrypt all that data by companies like Google and Apple were impeding investigators. Those two companies announced new software last fall that would encrypt all data stored on cell phones--the encryption software will be so secure that the companies themselves would not even be able to crack it, even if served with a warrant.

Comey said last October that the companies had "gone too far" in protecting consumers' data in the wake of revelations of government surveillance by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. As the New York Times noted, Comey hinted that the Obama administration might seek regulations and laws that would force companies to give the government access to encrypted data stored on smartphones.

"There's no doubt that all of us should care passionately about privacy, but we should also care passionately about protecting innocent people," Comey said at a recent roundtable with reporters, according to the Post.

In the letter, the companies and groups noted that administration officials "have suggested that American companies should refrain from providing any products that are secured by encryption, unless those companies also weaken their security in order to maintain the capability to decrypt their customers' data at the government's request. Some officials have gone so far as to suggest that Congress should act to ban such products or mandate such capabilities."

"We urge you to reject any proposal that U.S. companies deliberately weaken the security of their products," the letter states. "We request that the White House instead focus on developing policies that will promote rather than undermine the wide adoption of strong encryption technology. Such policies will in turn help to promote and protect cybersecurity, economic growth, and human rights, both here and abroad."

The letter added that "strong encryption is the cornerstone of the modern information economy's security. Encryption protects billions of people every day against countless threats--be they street criminals trying to steal our phones and laptops, computer criminals trying to defraud us, corporate spies trying to obtain our companies' most valuable trade secrets, repressive governments trying to stifle dissent, or foreign intelligence agencies trying to compromise our and our allies' most sensitive national security secrets."

FBI and Justice Department officials say they support the use of encryption, but said officials also must be able to get the lawful access they need, according to the Post.

However, there appears to be little appetite for doing so in a way that creates a government "backdoor" to get access to encrypted data. The fear is that doing so would leave users' data vulnerable to hackers and malicious government actors.

Paul Rosenzweig, a former Bush administration senior policy official at the Department of Homeland Security who signed the letter, told the Post: "If I actually thought there was a way to build a U.S.-government-only backdoor, then I might be persuaded. But that's just not reality."

For more:
- see this letter (PDF)
- see this Washington Post article
- see this ZDNet article
- see this VentureBeat article

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