Privacy SOS

Obama comes out swinging in favor of strong encryption and against dragnet surveillance

President Obama has come out in favor of unbreakable encryption technology, slamming as unworkable the installation of 'backdoors' into software to enable security services to snoop on private communications and internet traffic.

Obama's comments come in response to a proposal outlining a sweeping anti-terrorism law that would require companies to hand over encryption keys and private user data to government officials.

The proposed law "would essentially force all foreign companies, including U.S. companies, to turn over to the [] government mechanisms where they can snoop and keep track of all the users of those services," Reuters reports Obama said. "As you might imagine tech companies are not going to be willing to do that."

"Those kinds of restrictive practices I think would ironically hurt the [] economy over the long term because I don’t think there is any U.S. or European firm, any international firm, that could credibly get away with that wholesale turning over of data, personal data, over to a government," Obama said.

Obama's defense of encryption contrasts sharply with recent statements made by his own top intelligence officials, including the directors of the NSA and FBI. These officials have been on the warpath lately, telling anyone who will listen that encryption services pose serious threats to national security and public safety, and advocating that companies should build backdoors for security agencies.

If you're surprised to hear that President Obama has spoken out so strongly in favor of strong encryption and privacy in the face of government 'anti-terror' demands for total information awareness, read his full statements. He was talking about China, not the United States.

It's easy to read Obama's defense of Chinese encryption as pure hypocrisy, but it's actually substantially worse. That's because if the US security state succeeds in forcing technology companies to install backdoors into their systems, the systems will be insecure for all users—including those in China.

For global technology companies like Yahoo and Google, a backdoor is a backdoor, and one alone compromises their networks. As Yahoo executive Alex Stamos told NSA director Mike Rogers, his company has 1.3 billion users worldwide. If Yahoo builds a backdoor for the United States government, it compromises the security of all of those users, and opens the company up to pressure from countries like China, which would also demand backdoor access to its servers.

President Obama is right about one thing. Strong encryption and user privacy online are paramount, even in the face of hysterical talk about terrorism. But that applies in the United States, not just in China.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.