Data encryption in sharp focus after deadly attacks in Paris and California

By Rob Lever ,AFP

WASHINGTON — With renewed focus on how encrypted messages can be used to plot terrorist attacks, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is stepping up pressure on the tech sector to help in the battle. Although issues around encryption have been ongoing for decades, the prickly topic has sprung to the fore in recent weeks following killing sprees in Paris and California. Over the past two years, more sophisticated encryption — notably for smartphones — has become widely available following revelations by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden about vast U.S. surveillance programs. But U.S. administration officials as well as local law enforcement are making the case for better access to encrypted data, saying new smartphone and encryption technologies have made it more difficult to thwart “malicious actors.” “We want to strike the right balance. We want to make sure encryption is not used in a way that does allow for dark space for terrorist groups,” a White House statement said. Privacy remains a major counter-argument. Underlining those concerns, an online petition calling on the administration to avoid weakening encryption got more than 100,000 signatures, requiring a White House reply. White House chief technology officer Ed Felton and cybersecurity chief Michael Daniel said in response that “American technologists have a unique perspective … and we need them to bring their expertise, innovation and creativity to bear against the threat of terrorism.” Some analysts say the public is though ready to accept improved access for legitimate investigative purposes. ‘Back doors’

“This is part of a larger debate since the dawn of the Internet about how much anonymity people should have,” said James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who as a former administration official worked on encryption issues. Lewis said the debate has been skewed by the use of the term “back door” for law enforcement or intelligence when in fact most tech firms have the ability to decrypt data under certain circumstances. “Companies like Google mine this data for advertising purposes,” Lewis said. Darren Hayes, a professor of computer science forensics at Pace University in New York, said one helpful move would be for Apple and Google to roll back their encryption to the level of a year ago to enable access to smartphones with a warrant or court order. “It worked very well, but Apple somewhere along the line decided it didn’t make business sense,” he said, adding that tech firms are conscious of their public image and don’t want to be seen as tools of law enforcement or the National Security Agency.