Obama Administration Sought Ways To Circumvent Smartphone Encryption, But Feared Certain Backlash

It’s no secret that Obama Administration doesn’t think too highly of smartphone encryption. Officials for the Department of Justice and the FBI have railed against encryption, likening it to obstruction of justice.

“The notion that we would market devices that would allow someone to place themselves beyond the law, troubles me a lot,” said FBI Director James Comey last year. “As a country, I don't know why we would want to put people beyond the law.

“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.”

Barack Obama in Air Force Two
President Obama with a BlackBerry on his hip.

Luckily for Americans, tech giants like Apple and Google aren’t exactly jumping to answer the Justice Department’s call to hand over encryption keys to aid in criminal investigations. In fact, Apple has come under fire for its reluctance to bow down to government pressure over its encrypted iMessages.

According to The Washington Post, a working group of technical experts within the Obama Administration explored four possible backdoors that it could use to gain access to secure data on smartphones — all of which would need direct help from device makers to institute. The first is rather comical, as it would require smartphone manufacturers to include a proprietary, encrypted hardware port that would allow access to customer data. The second method involved forcing a device marker (under court order) to allow the government to insert spyware onto a device via automatic software update routines.

Yet another option would be to use split encryption keys, which could be combined under court order to access encrypted content. The last approach, called “forced backup,” would require companies to upload data from an encrypted device to “an unencrypted location.”

These four methods for gaining access to encrypted customer data were never meant to be brought forth as official proposals from Obama Administration. And although each of the four proposals was “technically feasible,” the Obama Administration feared that it would face immense public backlash for outlining plans to infiltrate encrypted data.

The official draft paper goes on to state:

In particular, given industry and civil society’s combative reaction to government statements to date, any proposed solution almost certainly would quickly become a focal point for attacks and the basis of further entrenchment by opposed parties. Rather than sparking more discussion, government-proposed technical approaches would almost certainly be perceived as proposals to introduce “backdoors” or vulnerabilities in technology products and services and increase tensions rather than build cooperation.

And the government would be exactly correct. Those in the tech community, and most certainly the American public wouldn’t take too kindly to such government intrusion. But now that the proposals have seen the light of day, it’s interesting to see what lengths the administration was willing to go in order to advance its anti-encryption agenda.