Content, Americas, Governance, Risk and Compliance

Justice Department Retools in Encryption Fight vs Apple, Facebook


The Justice Department now believes it is better armed to force companies, particularly Apple and Facebook, to unlock their devices and encrypted messaging apps to law enforcement, an assistant attorney general for national security said.

Mired in an ongoing battle with IT giants for access into devices and private messages, law enforcement is reportedly maneuvering to legislate encryption limits where it's so far failed to make headway with warrants, John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, told the Washington Post, ahead of the RSA conference. “If there were a proposal from tech companies or a desire to talk about this issue that wasn't just everybody rehashing their own positions…then we'd be happy to hear it,” he said. “But we really haven't gotten anywhere in however many years we've been open to talk.”

At this point, the Justice Department believes the landscape is shifting to give it a political advantage it hasn’t previously commanded, Demers said. “I've never seen such a bipartisan appetite for legislation,” he said. “If you look at what the feeling is about social media companies in Congress today versus what it was…in 2015, it's very different. There’s a sense that social media companies ought to have more responsibility for what's happening on their platforms.”

Still, there’s no indication that either Apple or Facebook, or any other IT leader for that matter, is receptive to bridging the divide between law enforcement and security and privacy advocates. Another reason law enforcement officials believe they now occupy higher ground are laws passed in Australia and the United Kingdom to compel technology companies to allow police access to private encrypted data. According to Demers, those laws might provide a framework for U.S. lawmakers to disarm any IT argument that compromising security and privacy will cost them business and customer loyalty. “If their competitors are in these other countries …then there's not going to be a competitive disadvantage for American companies,” he said.

A new, bipartisan bill aimed at preventing online child exploitation could also blunt end-to-end encryption for messaging platforms and potentially strip tech companies of protection from prosecution for publishing certain content. Apple and Facebook remained resolute in their vow not to build back doors into their products for law enforcement to potentially view the private communications of billions of users, despite pressure from Senate Judiciary Committee legislators and the U.S. Attorney General. In a reportedly contentious committee hearing in early December, senators and the tech kingpins tussled over security, privacy and national safety, with Apple and Facebook waving off accusations of harboring criminals in their refusals to back down. The sparring has far reaching implications involving some 2.5 billion users of WhatsApp and Apple’s Messenger combined worldwide.

D. Howard Kass

D. Howard Kass is a contributing editor to MSSP Alert. He brings a career in journalism and market research to the role. He has served as CRN News Editor, Dataquest Channel Analyst, and West Coast Senior Contributing Editor at Channelnomics. As the CEO of The Viewpoint Group, he led groundbreaking market research.