The debate over smartphone encryption is a contentious on these days in tech circles. On one side, you have companies like Apple and Google which employ full device encryption to secure user data and keep it out of prying eyes — even if those eyes belong to law enforcement. On the other side, you have politicians in Washington along with various city, state, and federal level enforcement agencies clamoring to get their hands on secret backdoors to defeat encryption (and criminals, and terrorists… so they say).
Apple has been one of the strongest proponents of device encryption and has fought against subpoenas that would force its hand in divulging customer data. Apple CEO Tim Cook doubled down on those statements in an interview with 60 Minutes over the weekend. Cook has asserted that its use of end-to-end encryption, which handles encryption/decryption on-device, means that it doesn’t have access to a treasure trove of information that could normally be gleaned from iMessages or even FaceTime transmissions.
However, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton isn’t buying that explanation. Cotton, like many of us, watched Cook on 60 Minutes, and he wasn’t impressed. Even though Cotton acknowledges that Apple is a “distinctive company” that has “improved the lives of millions of Americans,” he goes to claim that Cook “omitted critical facts about data encryption.
Senator Tom Cotton (Source: Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
“He claimed that Apple does not comply with lawful subpoenas because it cannot. While it may be true that Apple doesn't have access to encrypted data, that's only because it designed its messaging service that way. As a society, we don't allow phone companies to design their systems to avoid lawful, court-ordered searches.”
But Cotton didn’t stop there; he also pulled the guilt card out of his back pocket, adding, “If we apply a different legal standard to companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook, we can expect them to become the preferred messaging services of child pornographers, drug traffickers, and terrorists alike--which neither these companies nor law enforcement want.
Our society needs to address this urgent challenge now before more lives are lost or shattered."
In a way, Cotton’s comments aren’t too far removed from those made by FBI Director James Comey. “As a country, I don't know why we would want to put people beyond the law,” said Comey in October 2014. “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.”
With that being said, U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein made it clear back in late October that he doesn’t agree with forcing tech companies like Apple to unlock customers’ iPhones at the government’s request. He compared the governments antics to a drug company be forced to provide death injection drugs even if its corporate stance was against such life-ending procedures.