Obama Administration Won't Force Tech Firms To Decrypt User Data For Law Enforcement

It looks as though tech firms have gotten a reprieve on forcefully decrypting data at the behest of law enforcement officials; at least for now. FBI Director James Comey, who has been an outspoken voice against tech companies that have implemented system wide encryption for their mobile operating systems, delivered the welcome news while testifying at a Senate hearing before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“The administration has decided not to seek a legislative remedy now, but it makes sense to continue the conversations with [the] industry.” Those comments were echoed by, National Security Council spokesman Mark Stroh, who stated, “As part of those efforts, we are actively engaged with private companies to ensure they understand the public safety and national security risks that result from malicious actors’ use of their encrypted products and services.”

FBI Director James Comey
FBI Director James Comey

This move to in essence “do nothing” comes after over year of tough talk from Obama administration officials on the dangers of encryption and their hindrance to law enforcement agencies across the country. “The notion that we would market devices that would allow someone to place themselves beyond the law, troubles me a lot,” said Comey in October 2014. “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.”

It was recently revealed that the Obama administration drafted a proposal outlining four possible backdoors into mobile operating systems from Apple and Google. They ranged from forcing device makers to provide a propriety port that would give law enforcement direct access to customer to data, to employing split encryption keys which could decrypt data following a court order.

The administration eventually decided against going public with its proposal as it feared certain backlash from the public and the tech companies that it hoped to work with.

“Any proposed solution almost certainly would quickly become a focal point for attacks and the basis of further entrenchment by opposed parties,” read an official draft version of the proposal obtained by The Washington Post. “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.”