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Cook Slams Door on Backdoor Discussions

By David Jones
Jan 19, 2016 12:06 PM PT

Privacy advocates from around the globe have taken heart from reports that Apple CEO Tim Cook pushed hard against the Obama administration's efforts to reach a compromise on encryption during a recent meeting with several leading technology companies.

Cook earlier this month joined a delegation of social media and technology leaders in a meeting with top national security, law enforcement and White House insiders to discuss ways to work together to prevent terrorist organizations like ISIS from using social media to recruit and spread propaganda.

Counter ISIS

The meeting was part of the Obama administration's wider effort to counterbalance ISIS' social media strategy to inspire lone wolf attacks like the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, and to thwart its use of social media to spread its terrorist ideology -- and in some cases, communicate with field operators. Investigators have been exploring the role such communications might have played in last fall's horrific attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people and injured more than 380.

Cook reportedly took advantage of the meeting to lash out at administration officials who were calling for a way to grant law enforcement officials limited, backdoor access to computer systems, demanding that the White House come out in favor of "unbreakable encryption" instead.

"Apple and Cook have been very strong on this issue," said Andrew Crocker, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"I think it's heartfelt on Cook's part -- he says he believes privacy is a human right, and Apple has introduced a number of features that support privacy and security," he told the E-Commerce Times.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch, FBI Director James Comey, and John Carlin, assistant attorney general for national security were in attendance at the meeting.

Other attendees reportedly included Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and NSA Director Michael Rogers, as well as James Clapper, director of national intelligence, and Denis McDonough, White House chief of staff.

In addition to Cook, there were executives representing a large number of technology companies, including Facebook, Dropbox, Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Twitter and Cloudfare.

Just before the meeting, the Obama administration announced plans for task force that would coordinate the federal response to ISIS propaganda, which has been blamed for triggering lone wolf attacks in the U.S. and Australia. A Philadelphia police officer last week was gunned down in an attack that authorities have linked to ISIS inspiration.

Privacy, Security Backlash

Despite those concerns, any compromise to commercial encryption systems is untenable to staunch privacy and security advocates. It would endanger the rights of anyone using those systems and the very security of those systems, they argue, because sophisticated cyberthieves and others could exploit the backdoors left open for law enforcement.

"When it comes to encryption, there simply is not a balance between privacy and national security," said Andrea Castillo, program manager for the Technology Policy Program at George Mason University's Mercatus Center. "Weak encryption means weak national security, since antagonistic groups can exploit vulnerabilities and do harm to the U.S."

The challenge for law enforcement officials is to do better with the considerable information and processes already at their disposal, she told the E-Commerce Times.

"There is no possibility of a controlled government backdoor, as the biggest issue is who gets to decide which government gets the access," noted Ian Trump, security lead at Logic Now.

The focus on granting some kind of open door to government misses the point, he told the E-Commerce Times, because terrorists use other tools -- such as vehicles, IT devices and weapons -- to carry out their acts.

The government may want to consider taking the vendors to court in an effort to hold them liable for allowing their devices to fall into the hands of terrorists, Trump said.

'If governments insisted on corporations doing a better job of vetting their customers," he suggested, "then the issue of needing backdoors into encryption becomes mute."

The DoJ declined to comment, and Apple did not respond to our request to comment for this story.

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.

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