Tech leaders lobby Obama against backdoors in phones

19 May 2015

Major phone and computer manufacturers in the US have combined to write to Barack Obama, stating their arguments against the inclusion of ‘backdoor’ features on their devices.

Although these access points would allow the US government to have greater access to its citizens, companies like Google and Apple argue that it opens the real possibility of foreign states also hacking in.

It’s fairly commonplace in the US for the powers-that-be to seek greater and greater access to communications both within its borders and far beyond.

This thirst for metadata has lately seen pressure being put on smartphone manufacturers to allow for law enforcement to monitor encrypted information, which can easily be achieved via a tailored ‘backdoor’ access point created by software manufacturers.

Strong encryption or undermined encryption?

“Strong encryption is the cornerstone of the modern information economy’s security,” said the letter, signed by more than 140 tech companies, prominent technologists and civil society groups.

Encryption is essentially a way to keep your communication with your friends and family protected and respected.

However, US authorities are in consistent internal deliberation over what should be protected for the individual, and what greater protects the majority.

As evidenced by countless discoveries in the past couple of years, this deliberation rarely falls down in favour of the individual – although it’s quite a convoluted dispute when you boil it down.

Why, you could ask, should the US government be left out in the cold from all its citizens’ encrypted data when, for example, Google could be privy to so much information it becomes a defacto crutch for society?

Essentially, why are corporations ‘armed’ with all this crucial information about the US citizenry, and not the state?

Nothing to see here

To contrasting argument could be made that, well, it’s literally none of the US government’s business. A state has nothing, proactively speaking, to do with its citizens’ thoughts, so similarly it should have nothing, proactively speaking, to do with people’s preferences, interests, discussions and opinions.

Indeed, in a democracy authorities are supposed to, by definition, reflect public opinion, not seek to monitor and therefore control it.

“FBI and Justice Department officials say they support the use of encryption but want a way for officials to get the lawful access they need,” reported The Washington Post.

“Many technologists say there is no way to do so without building a separate key to unlock the data – often called a ‘backdoor,’ which they say amounts to a vulnerability that can be exploited by hackers and foreign governments.”

One rule for some

It’s quite funny when you consider the ban on Huawei from bidding on telecommunications contracts in the US, for fear of espionage.

Encryption expert Ronald Rivest, discussing how international an issue this could become, says a backdoor is the same for everyone.

“Once you make exceptions for US law enforcement, you’re also making exceptions for the British, the French, the Israelis and the Chinese, and eventually it’ll be the North Koreans.”

It’s a worry that the reason to fight this backdoor problem is to highlight how other evil people could get their hands on millions of people’s encrypted data, when in truth the winning argument should be ‘no, this is wrong’.

Back door image, via Shutterstock


Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic