As the Obama administration campaign to stop the commercialization of strong encryption heats up, National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden is firing back on behalf of the companies like Apple and Google that are finding themselves under attack.
“Technologists and companies working to protect ordinary citizens should be applauded, not sued or prosecuted,” Snowden wrote in an email through his lawyer.
Snowden was asked by The Intercept to respond to the contentious suggestion — made Thursday on a blog that frequently promotes the interests of the national security establishment — that companies like Apple and Google might in certain cases be found legally liable for providing material aid to a terrorist organization because they provide encryption services to their users.
In his email, Snowden explained how law enforcement officials who are demanding that U.S. companies build some sort of window into unbreakable end-to-end encryption — he calls that an “insecurity mandate” — haven’t thought things through.
“The central problem with insecurity mandates has never been addressed by its proponents: if one government can demand access to private communications, all governments can,” Snowden wrote.
“No matter how good the reason, if the U.S. sets the precedent that Apple has to compromise the security of a customer in response to a piece of government paper, what can they do when the government is China and the customer is the Dalai Lama?”
Weakened encryption would only drive people away from the American technology industry, Snowden wrote. “Putting the most important driver of our economy in a position where they have to deal with the devil or lose access to international markets is public policy that makes us less competitive and less safe.”
Snowden entrusted his archive of secret documents revealing the NSA’s massive warrantless spying programs all over the world to journalists in 2013. Two of those journalists — Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras — are founding editors of The Intercept.
Among Snowden’s many revelations are the CIA’s years-long efforts to break Apple’s security systems, and American and British spy agencies’ theft of a vast trove of private encryption keys. Snowden himself taught Greenwald the importance of using strong encryption to protect the materials.
FBI Director James Comey and others have repeatedly stated that law enforcement is “going dark” when it comes to the ability to track bad actors’ communications because of end-to-end encrypted messages, which can only be deciphered by the sender and the receiver. They have never provided evidence for that, however, and have put forth no technologically realistic alternative.
Meanwhile, Apple and Google are currently rolling out user-friendly end-to-end encryption for their customers, many of whom have demanded greater privacy protections — especially following Snowden’s disclosures.
Photo of Edward Snowden streaming through a remote-controlled robot at a 2014 TED conference in Vancouver.