On Tuesday, Congress warned technology companies that lawmakers will take action to regulate encryption if they don’t cooperate more openly with law enforcement. The announcement has reinvigorated an ongoing debate between big tech and the U.S. government.
Government officials argue that encryption will hinder criminal investigations. Tighter security is preventing access to critical information exchanged via devices and messaging apps. Big tech, on the other hand, believes encryption is essential for protecting individuals from bad actors and authoritarian governments.
It appears there is no simple solution as both sides believe they are acting in the best possible manner for the American people. As internet use and global communication increases, it’s likely the topic isn’t going to die down any time soon.
How the Encryption Debate Began
Regulated encryption has been a hot topic for several years. In 2016, the FBI ordered Apple to unlock the iPhone of one primary suspect in a San Bernardino, California shooting. Apple refused to help, even after receiving an order from a federal judge. Tim Cook was alarmed by the request, citing that doing so would leave millions of devices vulnerable.
The battle between Apple and the FBI kicked off a controversial discussion around data privacy and how much the government should be able to access. In a recent meeting, Apple’s Manager of User Privacy, Erik Neuenschwander, explained why weakening encryption across the board is not the answer.
“At this time, we’ve been unable to identify any way to create a backdoor that would work only for the good guys, said Neuenschwander. “When we have weaknesses in our system, they’re exploited by nefarious entities as well.”
Facebook in the Spotlight
The encryption topic retook center stage this fall when the Justice Department asked Facebook to delay its plans to encrypt its messaging services. Legislators are concerned that encryption would prevent law enforcement from identifying and prosecuting child predators.
Last year, Facebook reported nearly 17 million cases to the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Congress is concerned Facebook wouldn’t be able to provide adequate evidence for cases going forward if the social media giant moves forward with encryption.
Like Apple in 2016, Facebook is holding steady against the government in this area. The company sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr refusing to weaken encryption for WhatsApp. Facebook leadership also believes that regulating encryption would not work over the long term. Criminals will simply switch over to unregulated, international platforms to get what they want.
Government Officials Not Shying Away
U.S. Lawmakers seem to be sticking to their guns. Many believe there is no better way to protect Americans than to regulate how tech companies encrypt devices and user data. Also, other countries overseas have already paved the way on regulated encryption.
“There are many serious cases where we can’t access the device in the time period where it is most important for us to access it,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. “Without moving toward legislation, we’re not going to solve this problem.”
Some lawmakers are hopeful that big tech will respond amicably in 2020. Otherwise, by this time next year, there may be a legal movement and much bigger fight ahead. Stay tuned.