Obama Says Too-Strong Encryption Could be a ‘Problem

Evan Vucci/AP

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Obama suggested he may oppose too-tough-to-crack encryption technology.

President Obama opened the door Friday to adopting a tougher position against strong encryption technology, warning that too-tough-to-crack protections could threaten national security.

"If we get into a situation which the technologies do not allow us at all to track somebody we're confident is a terrorist … and despite knowing that information, despite having a phone number or a social-media address or email address, that we can't penetrate that, that's a problem," Obama said during a press conference held with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Obama's comment came at the tail end of the White House conference, in which the two jointly announced a new partnership that seeks to bolster cyberdefense cooperation between the two allies and deepen collaboration among each country's intelligence agencies.

Cameron is at the White House on a two-day trip that has reportedly included heavy lobbying for cooperation with the U.S. to work together to halt the expansion of strongly encrypted messaging platforms in order to better respond to terrorist threats.

When asked specifically about encryption, Obama neither directly endorsed nor condemned Cameron's position, acknowledging that Europe faces "particular challenges" due in part to the lack of assimilation of certain Muslim populations.

"Our Muslim populations, they feel themselves to be Americans," Obama said. "There are parts of Europe in which that's not the case."

But Obama admitted that the struggle to balance privacy and security is ongoing, and twice mentioned former NSA contractor Edward Snowden by name.

"This is a challenge that we have been working on since I've been president," Obama said. "Obviously, it was amplified when Mr. Snowden did what he did. It's gone off the front pages of the news, but we haven't stopped working on it. And we've been in dialogue with companies and have systematically worked through ways in which we can meet legitimate privacy concerns."

Cameron also largely avoided specifics, saying, "I don't think either of us are trying to enunciate a new doctrine" on surveillance.

Privacy advocates and security analysts have taken umbrage with the suggestion that too-tough-to-crack technology poses insurmountable hurdles for law -enforcement agencies and could undermine national security.

secret 2009 U.S. cybersecurity report—released publicly Thursday by The Guardian, which obtained the document from fugitive leaker Snowden—warned that government and private computers are vulnerable to hacks from Russia, China, and criminals if better encryption technologies were not implemented.

But senior officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey, criticized moves by Apple and Google last year to tighten encryption on their mobile devices, warning that such protections could impede criminal investigations.

But U.S. officials have not gone as far as Cameron, who earlier this week called for banning certain encryption techniques that he believes hamper government snooping. The British leader also suggested that certain messaging services, including Snapchat and WhatsApp, could be outlawed.

"Are we going to allow a means of communications which it simply isn't possible to read?" Cameron said in a speech Monday. "My answer to that question is: 'No, we must not.' "

The announcement of the new bilateral cyberdefense partnership caps a week that saw the White House mount an aggressive policy push on cybersecurity in advance of President Obama's State of the Union next week, during which the president is expected to call on Congress to pass his legislative proposals on information-sharing and data security. It also follows terrorist attacks in France earlier this year that killed 17 and have much of Europe clamoring for more-robust counterterrorism measures.

As part of the agreement, the U.S. and the United Kingdom will conduct a series of cyber war games later this year to test and improve each nation's ability to defend and respond to cyberattacks.

The program calls for increased information-sharing and "joint cybersecurity and network defense exercises," with the first such rehearsals focusing on the financial sector. As part of the new initiative, intelligence agencies—including the National Security Agency and Britain's Government Communications Headquarters—will establish a "joint cyber cell" to have an operating presence in each country to allow for more rapid sharing of cyber defense data.

"With regard to security, American-British unity is enabling us to meet challenges in Europe and beyond," Obama said.