Obama edges toward full support for encryption – but does he understand what that means?

Leaked doc says no backdoors, doesn't grasp basics of crypto


Where it goes a bit wobbly

If Prez Obama does go that route, a timeline would have the US administration reaching out to industry, other governments, and civil society this month to line up supportive statements, with a presidential statement in October. Then there'll be a drive in November to get the tech industry to agree to a voluntary system of giving law enforcement access to data under particular circumstances.

The specific wording from the memo reads:

Outreach to other governments to bring more allies in alignment with our position; outreach to U.S. industry to build voluntary cooperation in the absence of compulsion; host public discussions and debates on encryption policy with U.S. industry and foreign allies.

By voluntary cooperation, what is the White House saying? That the encryption is secure and backdoor-free until a company cooperates with the Feds, at which point the encryption is somehow dialed back, and messages and files can be suddenly magically read? That sounds like a backdoor.

Does the White House want, say, Apple to volunteer, at the sight of a warrant, to intercept key exchanges in the cloud so that intercepted iMessages can be decrypted? Won't that undermine the whole practice of end-to-end encryption by introducing backdoors by another name?

Either encryption is secure and backdoor-free, or it isn't and is generally useless. We assume by "voluntary cooperation," the President is willing to be told to get lost by the tech giants in November – if they have the strength to do so. If not, then all of this is a sham; a political maneuver to keep privacy-loving nerds quiet.

Already set in stone?

It is very possible that the decision has already been made and outreach is about to begin, leading to the leak of the NSC memo. Although the FBI was originally forthright about its demand for backdoor access, it has since scaled back its aggressive demands, particularly after the tech industry pushed back just as hard. Recently, an FTC Commissioner and its CTO also publicly posted their support of encryption.

Despite the NSC's importance and key position within the White House, it is notorious for leaks, although a full leaked document is unusual. ®


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