AT&T CEO Says Government Should Have Final Say On Encryption, Not Apple Or Silicon Valley

The U.S. Government isn’t too happy about efforts by Silicon Valley to enable device encryption, which keeps user data protected and out of the reach of law enforcement agencies. FBI Director James Comey abhors smartphone encryption, and has come out against it on numerous occasions.

“The notion that people have devices, again, that with court orders, based on a showing of probable cause in a case involving kidnapping or child exploitation or terrorism, we could never open that phone? My sense is that we've gone too far when we've gone there,” said Comey in 2014. “As a country, I don't know why we would want to put people beyond the law.”

If you ask AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson about the issue, he’d tell you that Silicon Valley is barking up the wrong tree when it comes to fighting back against the government on encryption. “I don’t think it is Silicon Valley’s decision to make about whether encryption is the right thing to do,” said Stephenson when speaking this week at the World Economic Forum. “I understand Tim Cook’s decision, but I don’t think it’s his decision to make.”

randall stephenson
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson

Stephenson went on to add that “I personally think that this is an issue that should be decided by the American people and Congress, not by companies.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook, who Stephenson called out by name, has been an outspoken critic of the U.S. Government’s wish to weaken device encryption under the guise of fighting terrorism and other heinous crimes. "Here's the situation is on your smartphone today, on your iPhone, there's likely health information, there's financial information,” said Cook in an interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes in December. “There are intimate conversations with your family, or your co-workers. There's probably business secrets and you should have the ability to protect it. And the only way we know how to do that, is to encrypt it."

On the subject of backdoor access for law enforcement, Cook has dismissed the idea, stating, “The reality is if you put a back door in, that back door's for everybody, for good guys and bad guys."

Fighting back against similar measures in the United Kington, an Apple representative reiterated Cook’s comments on backdoors, adding, “A key left under the doormat would not just be there for the good guys. The bad guys would find it too.”

Stephenson also took issue with the notion that AT&T is somehow complicit or a willing partner in insuring that the government gains access to its customer database or gives the government extreme powers to use its network for snooping purposes.

“It is silliness to say there’s some kind of conspiracy between the U.S. government and AT&T,” said Stephenson, who continued, adding that his company only complies with government demands after is had received a court order or warrant.