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The White House Responds to Petition to Protect Data Encryption Signed by More Than 100,000 People

The fight for cyber privacy moves forward as administration officials ask for input from the public.

The White House Responds to Petition to Protect Data Encryption Signed by More Than 100,000 People

Image via (cc) Flickr user pennstatelive

The fight over who can have access to your secure online information—and when—seems poised to enter a new phase in the coming weeks, as the White House indicates it will soon revise its stance on strong data encryption.


The news comes just days after a closed-door meeting between administration officials and privacy advocates behind a recent online petition asking for the president to clarify his stance on strong cyber encryption. Present at this meeting were Ed Felten, who serves as deputy U.S. chief technology officer, and Michael Daniel, a special assistant to the president and cybersecurity coordinator, as well as representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, and New America’s Open Technology Institute, reports The Daily Dot.

In the wake of the San Bernardino terrorist attack, there has been increased focus on what role, if any, strong digital encryption may have played in helping those responsible carry out their goal. “That’s obviously one issue we’re very interested in,” California representative Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters. “To what degree were either encrypted devices or communications a part of the impediment of the investigation, either while the events were taking place or to our investigation now?”

While there has been no evidence to suggest encryption was used in that instance, it hasn’t stopped government officials from pushing wholesale anti-encryption options as a possible law enforcement tool. Senators Richard Burr and Dianne Feinstein are reportedly working on legislation that would compel technology companies to decrypt and turn over their users’ secured private data upon court order. It’s legislative efforts like these that worry many privacy advocates, who took to the White House’s “We the People” petition platform to urge an administration response.

“The government should not erode the security of our devices or applications, pressure companies to keep and allow government access to our data, mandate implementation of vulnerabilities or backdoors into products, or have disproportionate access to the keys to private data,” the petition’s authors write.

“We demand privacy, security, and integrity for our communications and systems,” they continue. “As a public, we should be confident that the services we use haven’t been weakened or compromised by government mandate or pressure. No legislation, executive order, or private agreement with the government should undermine our rights.”

The petition, posted earlier this fall, quickly passed the 100,000-signatories mark required to trigger an official White House response. That response came last week, in the form of a letter from Felten and Daniel, which asked for the public’s thoughts and comments on the issue of data encryption.

“American technologists have a unique perspective that makes them essential in finding new ways to combat it,” write the White House staffers. “They are the best and most creative in the world, and we need them to bring their expertise, innovation, and creativity to bear against the threat of terrorism. This week, administration officials will sit down with the creators of this petition to hear directly from them about their priorities and concerns. We also want to hear from you. This is a critical conversation, and we want to hear from as many voices as we can.”

At the meeting itself, administration officials were described to The Daily Dot by Open Technology Institute director Kevin Bankston as being “mostly in listening mode.” However, Bankston continued, “they did seem to share our overall goal of moving the discussion beyond the debate over encryption into a more productive conversation about how best to provide for national security in the current technological environment.”

The Hill reports that “moving the discussion” will come, in part, in the form of a clarification from President Obama on the subject—likely before the holiday break. Obama has already backed off from supporting earlier attempts to enact similar backdoor access to encrypted data.

As Bankston explained to The Daily Dot:

“What we want to hear from the White House is for them to not only continue to hold to their current position—which is that they are not seeking legislation at this time—but have them drop the qualifier of 'at this time.'"

"Our hope is that, if they are willing to do that, we can move beyond this seemingly endless debate... and start talking about how can law enforcement and intelligence [agencies] adapt to a world where encryption is common, rather than pretending that we could ever make encryption adapt to law enforcement and intelligence [agencies].”

[via big think, the daily dot, the hill]

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