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Obama won't support anti-encryption bill, report says

The legislation would be a blow to tech companies' attempt to strengthen privacy, but it seems lawmakers backing it are missing a key ally.

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The White House will apparently remain quiet when it comes to proposed legislation about encryption.

Charles Smith/Corbis

It's been a good week for encryption supporters, and Barack Obama is partly to thank.

The White House won't publicly support proposed legislation that would allow judges to compel tech companies to help law enforcement crack open otherwise secret data and communications, Reuters reported Thursday.

It's an about-face for the White House. Obama said last month that he had come around to the view that the government must find a way to access locked devices. Even though the White House has reviewed the legislation's text and provided feedback, it is not expected to comment publicly on it. The legislation could be introduced in Congress as early as this week.

Such a stance from the president would be a major victory for tech companies trying hard to defend the encryption that protects people's privacy even as it makes life easier for criminals seeking to hide their communications.

The FBI has pushed hard for the legislation, saying investigations are getting harder because information sources are "going dark" with encryption that scrambles communications and data into unreadable gibberish to outsiders. The debate over encryption has been rumbling for years, but this year's standoff between the FBI and Apple brought it to a head after a judge ordered Apple to unlock an iPhone tied to December's terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. Two terrorists killed 14 people and injured more than 20 others in the attack.

The proposed legislation is at odds with a tech industry busy introducing tighter-than-ever encryption, spurred in part by revelations of government prying revealed by leaker Edward Snowden in 2013. For example, Facebook's popular WhatsApp messaging service this week began encrypting all communications from end to end, meaning the company has no means of seeing what's being said.

The legislation under consideration is part of the fallout from the struggle between Apple and the FBI. The Senate Intelligence Committee announced in February it would attempt to impose criminal penalties on companies like Apple that refuse to do as they are told.

As the proposed legislation stands, though, it doesn't say what actions companies might be ordered to take, what circumstances would permit authorities to issue the order, or what punishments would follow noncompliance, Reuters said, citing people familiar with the text.

The White House directed Reuters to its press secretary's comments last month that the administration is "skeptical" lawmakers could resolve the encryption debate, given their difficulty to deal even with "simple things."

The White House could not immediately be reached for comment.

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