Apple CEO Tim Cook lashed out at the high-level delegation of Obama administration officials who came calling on tech leaders in San Jose last week, criticizing the White House for a lack of leadership and asking the administration to issue a strong public statement defending the use of unbreakable encryption.
The White House should come out and say “no backdoors,” Cook said. That would mean overruling repeated requests from FBI Director James Comey and other administration officials that tech companies build some sort of special access for law enforcement into otherwise unbreakable encryption. Technologists agree that any such measure could be exploited by others.
But Attorney General Loretta Lynch responded to Cook by speaking of the “balance” necessary between privacy and national security — a balance that continues to be debated within the administration.
The exchange was described to The Intercept by two people who were briefed on the meeting, which the White House called to discuss a variety of counterterrorism issues with representatives from Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Cloudflare, Google, Drop Box, Microsoft, and LinkedIn.
The Washington Post reported in September that the White House had decided not to pursue legislation against unbreakable encryption. But the intelligence community’s top lawyer was quoted in an email saying that that the administration should be “keeping our options open … in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement.”
And Comey has been urging technology companies to voluntarily alter “their business model” and stop offering end-to-end encryption by default.
Despite the growing pressure tech companies are feeling from governments worldwide to stop letting terrorists take advantage of their services, Cook has continued to defend the importance of encryption in protecting all digital transactions — from text messages and emails to bank information and medical records.
Cook has been outspoken in his opposition to the idea that we need to sacrifice privacy and digital security for the sake of public safety. During an episode of 60 Minutes on December 20, he said, “We’re America, we should have both.”
A White House briefing document for the meeting obtained by The Intercept noted that terrorists are using encrypted forms of communication “where law enforcement cannot obtain the content of the communication even with court authorization.”
The briefing asked if there might be “high-level principles” that Silicon Valley could agree on when it comes to terrorist use of encryption — and whether or not there are “technologies” that “could make it harder for terrorists to use the internet to mobilize, facilitate, and operationalize.”
The document also asked how the government could better take advantage of “unencrypted data” such as metadata — details about who is contacting who, when, and for how long — and whether or not there could be a good mechanism to “preserve critical data” and hand it over to law enforcement as quickly as possible, though the document did not specify what that “critical data” might be.
Administration officials attending the meeting included White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Lynch, Comey, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, NSA Director Michael Rogers, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
The Department of Justice and the FBI both declined to comment on the details of the meeting.
The White House document distributed at the meeting offered “classified briefings” to “share additional information” about the way terrorists are using encryption — but it did not specify what those meetings would entail, or the terms of attending them, including any security clearances and non-disclosure agreements that would be necessary.
The briefing document raised seemingly well-intentioned questions, such as whether or not there might be “potential downsides or unintended consequences” of developing or altering existing technology to solve these problems.
But technologists and cryptographers have been insisting for decades almost unanimously that trying to pierce impenetrable end-to-end encryption to provide the government with access would be more dangerous than beneficial. And you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
According to the Washington Post, Comey would only fly to San Jose to participate in the meeting if encryption was on the agenda.
Top photo: Apple CEO Tim Cook