Should Google and Apple Take Themselves Out of the Encryption Equation?

Carl Weinschenk
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Cyber Crime: Law Enforcement Fights Back

A recurring theme throughout history is that as technology advances, societies struggle with keeping the good created by the new tools from being overwhelmed by the evil that is just as easily made possible by the innovation.

A prime illustration of this duality is the smartphone. Last week, I wrote about how the reliance on cellular communications will exacerbate problems during terrorist attacks because authorities will disable networks to prevent remote bomb detonations.

Another example of how technology serves up tricky challenges is that the government is sounding warnings about Apple’s and Google’s plans to change the way encryption is employed on their devices.

The Register reports that Apple and Google are taking themselves out of the equation. The companies are going to enable devices to use owners’ passcodes to create the encryption and decryption keys, the story says. Thus, the companies would be unable to respond to an emergency request to decrypt a message simply because they will not know what the encryption key is.

FBI Director James Comey reacted strongly to the moves. Huffington Post quoted comments made to reporters:

"I like and believe very much that we should have to obtain a warrant from an independent judge to be able to take the content of anyone's closet or their smart phone," he said. "The notion that someone would market a closet that could never be opened -- even if it involves a case involving a child kidnapper and a court order -- to me does not make any sense."

Conversations about the situation have been held between the government and Google and Apple. The conversations are about the “marketing” of the products; it is unclear if that refers to how the devices operate or the way in which they are presented to the public.

It is an extremely difficult question. While Comey’s concerns can’t be dismissed, it also is true that the government has been aggressive in using its vast technical capabilities to track people and their messages here and abroad for the past few years. Some people, and not just hardcore civil libertarians, think that the feds have stepped well over the line.

J.D. Tuccille at Reason makes the case for the two vendors:

FBI bureaucrats may be upset, but the rest of us have good reason to cheer the tech companies' moves. That's because Comey and his cronies here in the U.S. and around the world have made it thoroughly clear over the years that governments are among the more dangerous threats to people's privacy.


Vox has a great backgrounder on the issues of strong encryption, law enforcement and national security. Clearly, there is no easy answer: The heightened encryption will help bad people do bad things and it can also be reasonably said that the government has overstepped its bounds, in light of information about certain actions, including that the U.S. has been spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The very least that can be said is that it is a very important debate to have, and one that got even more serious with Google’s and Apple’s announcements.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.

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