Google, Apple among tech giants urging US to support encryption

The companies, along with security experts, say President Obama should protect user data, putting them in direct competition with the country's top law enforcement officials that may want access to that data.

Don Reisinger
CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
4 min read

Apple's iMessage will keep your data private. Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Some of the technology industry's largest companies have applied pressure on President Obama over the issue of data encryption.

A total of 140 companies, including Apple and Google, joined security experts and former government officials in co-signing a letter to the White House, urging President Obama to scuttle any law or action by law enforcement that would weaken data encryption. The letter, which was sent on Tuesday to the White House, calls data encryption the "cornerstone of the modern information economy's security," according to the Washington Post, which obtained a copy of the letter.

The letter is just the latest salvo in an ongoing battle over data encryption. One side of the battle is made up of companies like Apple and Google that encrypt data communications between users. The companies argue that such data encryption is not only justified, but necessary. Law enforcement officials, including FBI director James Comey, however, have said that data encryption on applications like Apple's iMessage instant-messaging software, provides a gateway for criminals to communicate with each other without fear of law enforcement oversight.

Apple's iMessage has been of particular concern to Comey and his cohorts. The instant messaging application allows iOS and OS X users to text each other messages. Apple has encrypted those communications from one end to another and only the user holds the key that would decrypt those messages. That creates a scenario in which the US government could technically obtain a warrant for a user's data, but would be unable to access that data, since Apple has no way of retrieving it.

Similar data-encryption is running on Google's Android, the world's most popular mobile operating system. Together, Apple's iOS and Google's Android owned 96 percent of the worldwide smartphone market in 2014, representing more than 1.2 billion devices.

That scale has prompted Comey to speak often and loudly about his concerns with data encryption. In a talk in October, Comey said that " justice may be denied" because of strong encryption. He added that while he's not seeking a backdoor to easily access servers and obtain messages, he would like "to use the front door, with clarity and transparency, and with clear guidance provided by the law."

Comey has bolstered his argument by pointing to the US Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994. That law mandates that telephone companies build wiretapping backdoors into their equipment for officials to listen in on suspected criminals. No such law mandates a similar backdoor for mobile devices.

Comey's statement was echoed by US Deputy Assistant General David Bitkower in March who said that data encryption that doesn't allow for law enforcement access gives a criminal or terrorist the opportunity to act at their will without fear of any prying eyes, effectively putting the US in danger. Giving law enforcement access to suspected criminal information, Bitkower said, is the "standard American principle for the last couple of hundred years."

The debate over data encryption and privacy is even more concerning in light of the Edward Snowden leaks. The former NSA contractor, who is currently living in Russia and away from US law enforcement, revealed several US government surveillance programs, including the National Security Agency's PRISM program. Those programs have been heavily criticized by people around the globe for scraping any and all data that hits foreign servers and allows the US government to access any communication it desires. The leaks, which have been ongoing since 2013, have shined a bright light on US government activities and data privacy. They've also provided ample fodder for technology companies like Google and Apple to justify their data-protection efforts.

In an interview in September with Charlie Rose, Apple CEO Tim Cook chimed in on his company's policy on data privacy. He said that Apple's "business is not based on having information about you," adding that the iPhone maker is "not reading your email. We're not reading your iMessage."

"If the government laid a subpoena on us to get your iMessage, we can't provide it," Cook confirmed. "It's encrypted and we don't have the key."

Cook also took a shot at the US government, saying that it has "erred too much on the collect-everything side."

Ultimately, whether the letter and overtures made within the technology industry prove fruitful will depend on how President Obama decides to respond. In an interview with the Washington Post, privacy expert Kevin Bankston, who drafted the letter, said his goal is to put the issue back in front of President Obama, who he says, "has been letting his top law enforcement officials criticize companies for making their devices more secure."

Whether Bankston and his co-signers will find a sympathetic recipient, however, remains to be seen. In an interview with Recode in February, President Obama said that he's a "strong believer in strong encryption" and he's sympathetic to companies "properly responding to market demand." Still, he sees the other side of the argument and isn't so sure either side is entirely correct.

"I lean probably further in the direction of strong encryption than some do inside of law enforcement," the President said. "But I am sympathetic to law enforcement because I know the kind of pressure they're under to keep us safe. And it's not as black-and-white as it's sometimes portrayed. Now, in fairness, I think the folks who are in favor of airtight encryption also want to be protected from terrorists."

Apple, Google, and the White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.