EFF and Access Now Discuss Encryption with White House Representatives

Published: December 16, 2015 9:55 PM /


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In response to an online petition asking Obama to publicly affirm support of strong encryption, White House officials issued a response that they would meet with the leaders of the petition to discuss the topic of encryption. On Friday, White House representatives had a phone conversation with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Access Now, and the EFF has posted some details about this meeting.

The two organizations presented several arguments to the White House as to why undermining encryption would be a bad idea. They took aim at a position being presented by both the media and politicians, which suggests that it should be possible to add backdoors for the usage of law enforcement without making encrypted communications susceptible to hackers and criminals. They flatly stated that this is not possible, there is no technical solution to undermine encryption so it can only be accessed with a lawful warrant.

The organizations were not just concerned about legislation regarding encyrption but also about law enforcement agencies applying pressure on companies to put in backdoors, even if the backdoors are not required by law. The EFF claims that the agencies like the FBI are, "putting private pressure on companies to undermine encryption, using overblown rhetoric and unsubstantiated claims around national security." They argue that law enforcement agencies should not be trying to undermine encryption behind the scenes, as they have been reported to do in the past when arguing it is partially to blame for criminal or terrorist activities and hampering security.

The White House representatives apparently listened carefully to the concerns brought up by the EFF and Access Now, but had little to say. What little they did say was troubling to the EFF, who stated, "While they seemed well aware of our concerns about the technical infeasibility of inserting backdoors, they didn’t necessarily share them. That worried us a great deal."

At the end of the meeting the EFF made several requests of what they expect to see in Obama's official response to the petition. They asked that any claim by Obama of supporting strong encryption be clarified to mention that he does not support backdoors or any other measure that would undermine encryption. They also asked him to state that he would oppose any legislation to undermine encryption. Finally, they requested that all executive branch agencies be ordered to cease their own attempts to undermine encryption by applying pressure or coercion on private companies.

With both the House of Representatives and Senate currently considering proposals to deal with encryption, getting Obama to deliver a veto threat might stave off encryption legislation at least until the next president is elected. The meeting happens at a time when the current omnibus budget bill has been edited to include an updated version of CISA. However it doesn't seem that the meeting with the EFF and Access Now had much of an impact on the White House's position. However, the White House does claim to be interested in hearing the opinions of ordinary Internet users and the topic of encryption, and an online form is available for anyone to share their thoughts on the matter.

Do you think this meeting will have any impact? How important are the matters they discussed to you? Leave your comments below.

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I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.