Apple's Tim Cook pushes White House to take stand on encryption

The CEO makes a case for standing against the use of back doors, or intentional security vulnerabilities that let law enforcement poke into your private information.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
2 min read
Apple CEO Tim Cook

At a meeting with the FBI and others, Apple CEO Tim Cook was reportedly up-front about back doors.

Josh Miller/CNET

It seems Apple CEO Tim Cook isn't shy about doling out advice to the Obama administration.

Cook is reportedly unhappy with the White House's unwillingness to take a stance on encryption, or the scrambling of emails and other messages to keep them private. According to The Intercept, he made his concerns clear to a high-level delegation of officials during a meeting in San Jose, California, last week, asking the administration to issue a statement defending the use of unbreakable encryption.

At the center of the debate is the use of back doors. These intentional openings coded into software let law enforcement officials bypass security measures and get at your data. The FBI and some administration officials argue that the tech industry should put such back doors in place so law enforcement can access communications between terrorists and protect national security. But the industry is fighting back, in part because they're afraid hackers could exploit those same back doors.

At a meeting to discuss counterterrorism, attended by representatives from companies including Facebook, Twitter, Google, DropBox, Microsoft and LinkedIn, Cook told White House officials they should state publicly "no back doors."

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Firms such as Facebook and Google are widely known to comply with legal requests from police and security agencies to help tackle serious crime and terrorism. Over the past few years, they've attempted to be more transparent about how many of these requests they receive and comply with. When it comes to encryption though, the tech industry is keen to show that it's putting users first, and it's been steadfast in its refusal to introduce vulnerabilities into otherwise impenetrable systems.

As for the White House, its position on encryption is less clear. Attorney General Loretta Lynch reportedly responded to Cook by saying there needed to be "balance" between privacy and national security.

The issue isn't going away. Last September the White House decided not to seek a legislative fix to deal with the increased use of encryption by the tech industry. A Washington Post report, however, quoted an email from the US intelligence community's top lawyer as saying the administration should be "keeping our options open."