The US’s Faltering Leadership on Encryption
With just weeks left in his term in office, President Obama has failed to act, leaving a dangerous vacuum in leadership on encryption globally, which the next president must fill.
Human rights defenders, journalists, and hundreds of millions of ordinary Internet users rely on encryption to shield them from surveillance and cybercriminals. To protect users, companies like Apple and WhatsApp have begun to roll out encryption on their services so that even the companies cannot access our data.
For two years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has demonized these companies, arguing that the encryption protections have made it more difficult to investigate terrorism and other serious crimes. The FBI wants access to all encrypted messages, even if that means forcing tech firms to build so-called “back doors” into encryption that weaken cybersecurity for all users. While the Obama administration announced in 2015 it would not call for legislation requiring what the FBI sought, the issue erupted again when a US judge ordered Apple to hack an encrypted iPhone in February 2016.
Though the FBI was eventually able to access the phone’s data without Apple’s help, the case was followed closely worldwide. France, Germany, China, Russia, Brazil, and India are among the many states who are considering their approach to encryption, and the US’s position will set an important global precedent.
Both presidential candidates have raised the issue of encryption, but the details of their positions – and their implications for both privacy and security – are far from clear. Donald Trump criticized Apple for refusing the FBI’s demand and called for a boycott of their products. He has also stated that the US should “clos[e] parts of the Internet” used by ISIS, and “penetrate the Internet” to gather intelligence about the group. Trump has not explained how he would accomplish these goals.
Hillary Clinton rejects a false choice between privacy interests and keeping Americans safe,” and supports creating a “national commission on digital security and encryption.” She previously stated that she wouldn’t legally compel companies to build back doors, but called for a “Manhattan-like project” with the tech sector to find a solution. She has also proposed an “intelligence surge” to bolster counterterrorism efforts, and wants Internet companies to cooperate in monitoring social media.
The next president should not ignore the near-unanimous agreement among digital security experts that encryption back doors weaken cybersecurity while failing to keep encryption out of the hands of determined criminals. Instead, he or she should bolster the US’s leadership on digital rights and promote strong encryption worldwide.