There’s been a battle going on for the last several years, across multiple presidential administrations, between the government and the big tech companies, about encryption.
To simplify a complex issue, several major tech companies, including Apple with the iPhone, offer end-to-end encryption, which gives only users the ability to access their own devices.
Various law enforcement entities have made it clear over the years that they would like to have a way around such encryption—known as a “back door”—when it comes to conducting investigations into crime, as well as terrorism. Apple, and other tech companies, have long resisted such efforts.
Most notably, that company and the government had a standoff in 2015, over government efforts to unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernadino shooters, a fight that was repeated earlier this year in the case of a phone belonging to the Pensacola shooter. However, the FBI was eventually able to unlock both the San Bernadino and Pensacola’s phones, with the help of third parties, and law enforcement and prosecutors are often able to access the iCloud data of criminal targets, with use of subpoenas, something that users agree to when they sign up for iCloud’s terms of service.
Now, the Justice Department has teamed up with its counterparts in several other countries—known as the “Five Eyes” —to author a letter with “concerns” about end-to-end encryption, and offering a potential solution.
The letter, described as an “international statement,” was authored by U.S. Attorney General William Barr, British Home Secretary Priti Patel, Australian Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, New Zealand Minister of Justice Andrew Little and Canadian Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair. Also signed to the letter are “India” and “Japan,” with no particular individual listed.
The statement says that the undersigned “support strong encryption,” but that they are concerned that “particular implementations of encryption technology, however, pose significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children.”
The letter recommends that technology companies work with governments to take certain steps: “Embed the safety of the public in system designs,” “enable law enforcement access to content in a readable and usable format where an authorisation is lawfully issued, is necessary and proportionate, and is subject to strong safeguards and oversight,” and “engage in consultation with governments and other stakeholders to facilitate legal access in a way that is substantive and genuinely influences design decisions.”
Apple and other tech companies have consistently opposed such efforts, but they have not responded to the most recent statement.
In the event that a new administration takes power in January, it’s unclear whether a Biden Administration would take a different posture than that taken by the Trump Department of Justice. Biden has not addressed the issue during the campaign, although he was vice president during the San Bernadino affair, and Wired reported eight years ago that Biden, as a senator in 1991, added language to an anti-terrorism bill that would have required “providers of electronic communications services and manufactures of electronic communications services shall ensure that communications systems permit the government to obtain the plaintext contents of voice, data, and other communications when appropriately authorized by law.”
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver. Image: Reuters