Privacy groups discuss encryption with White House

Obama administration officials met with multiple civil liberties groups about a petition urging the president to support strong encryption.

digital key

White House officials met Dec. 10 with multiple civil liberties groups behind a petition urging the Obama administration to support strong encryption.

Administration officials told representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democracy and Technology, Human Rights Watch, Access Now and New America's Open Technology Institute that they planned to issue a formal response over the holidays, OTI Senior Policy Counsel Ross Schulman told FCW.

He added that the groups went into the meeting intending to help the administration articulate a response to the petition that demonstrates an understanding of their side of the issue.

"Primarily we hoped they would announce they are not seeking legislation that would undermine encryption," he said. "And to go even further, we were hoping they would say why [such legislation] is a bad idea."

However, Schulman said the administration "did more listening than talking" at the meeting.

National Security Council spokesman Mark Stroh confirmed that there will be a full response to the petition but declined to say when. "The response [posted online] was an interim response," he said.

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., have reignited debate about encryption, especially as multiple tech companies, including Apple and Google, are making devices with default encryption that blocks access to law enforcement agencies.

When FBI Director James Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Dec. 9, he said the companies should change their business model to allow law enforcement access to encrypted communications. In his address to the nation on Dec. 6, President Barack Obama called on technology companies to work with the government to make terrorism investigations easier.

Multiple efforts underway in Congress seek to encourage experts to develop recommendations on whether law enforcement could have access to encrypted communications without weakening the security and privacy of law-abiding users.

Schulman said that if the Obama administration took a public stance on end-to-end encryption, it would help push law enforcement agencies to find ways to adapt rather than look for backdoors into encrypted devices.

So far, the White House has come down in favor of preserving commercially available strong encryption.

In an interview with FCW, U.S. CIO Tony Scott said that if the government develops a law or policy giving law enforcement access to encryption keys, bad actors will seek encryption apps that are outside the purview of U.S. law.

"All the really bad people who are highly motivated to keep their stuff secret are going to use the encryption method that doesn't have a backdoor," Scott said.

"Encryption is a fact of life, and we have to adapt to that world," Schulman said. "We can't pretend to go back to a former time because it's just not feasible."