Last month, we wrote about a document leaked to the Washington Post that showed the three “options” that the White House was considering for responding to the debate about backdooring encryption. The document made it clear that the White House knew that there was zero chance that any legislation mandating encryption backdoors would pass. But the question then was what to do about it: take a strong stand on the importance of freedom and privacy, and make it clear that the US would not mandate backdoors… or take the sleazy way out and say “no new legislation for now.” As we said at the time, option 1 was the only real option. You take a stand. You talk about the importance of encryption in protecting the public.
However, it appears that the White House has taken the cowardly approach. Yesterday, the leading voice in favor of mandating encryption backdoors, FBI Director James Comey, announced that the administration would not push for legislation to mandate backdoors… for now. But it will still push for backdoors quietly behind doors with companies.
After months of deliberation, the Obama administration has made a long-awaited decision on the thorny issue of how to deal with encrypted communications: It will not — for now — call for legislation requiring companies to decode messages for law enforcement.
Rather, the administration will continue trying to persuade companies that have moved to encrypt their customers’ data to create a way for the government to still peer into people’s data when needed for criminal or terrorism investigations.
“The administration has decided not to seek a legislative remedy now, but it makes sense to continue the conversations with industry,” FBI Director James B. Comey said at a Senate hearing Thursday of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
This is a totally bullshit response. Of course the administration isn’t asking for legislation: because everyone knows (1) it couldn’t pass and (2) it would be a really, really stupid thing to ask for. In that leaked document last month, the administration noted that with this option public interest groups “would likely see this outcome as a solid win.” They’re wrong. This option is bullshit. It’s one notch up from literally “the least they could do.” It doesn’t help anyone. It provides cover to countries that do want to undermine the tech industry and mandate backdoors. It leaves open the ways to pressure tech companies to secretly include backdoors that undermine everyone’s safety. And, worst of all, it takes away any and all “high ground” positions for the administration to point out that it doesn’t want to undermine the safety and security of the American public.
In short, the administration didn’t take the strong stand when the strong stand was the only feasible path. There are enough people within the administration who know this is the stupid choice, and yet they still took it. A very weak move from an administration that should know better (and does know better), just to please some technologically-clueless law enforcement folks.