US senators asked technology companies, including Apple and Facebook, to provide law enforcement personnel with encrypted user data, otherwise they need to be subject to supervision.
At a hearing held by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, senators from both parties urged technology companies to help law enforcement obtain potential evidence hidden through encryption. Apple and Facebook executives have been asked to change the way they work to provide more help. Senators also cited cases involving child abuse and mass shootings as proof that encryption prevented investigators from obtaining more evidence.
“You have to find a way to do this, or we’ll do it for you,” Sen. Lindsey Graham told senior executives. Eric Newenswad, Apple’s privacy director Erik Neuenschwander and Facebook communications privacy chief Jay Sullivan attended the hearing, but they both wanted senators to scrutinize competitors more severely.
Sullivan has repeatedly stated that Facebook does not produce devices or operating systems and is open to the idea of a “scan on device” that automatically flags illegal content. At the same time, Newnswad noted that Apple “has no forum for strangers to connect with each other … nor does our business allow us to scan users’ materials to build their profiles.”
The latest round of the ongoing encryption debate comes from U.S. Attorney General William Barr and heads of law enforcement agencies in the United Kingdom, who previously called on Facebook to suspend plans to introduce end-to-end encryption technology into all messaging services . WhatsApp is already using this encryption technology, and Facebook is also planning to introduce it to services such as Facebook Messenger.
Barr had previously called for a “back door” , saying that the use of encryption itself “has brought huge costs to society” and that it “seriously reduces the ability of law enforcement to detect and prevent crime before it occurs. Barr also said that unless Facebook has the possibility to provide backdoor access to the data, it is advised that it is best not to continue with the plan. Facebook disagrees with this view, saying that “staying behind the door” will be the best gift for criminals and hackers, which is not what the company intends to do.
Apple participated in the hearing because the company had a legal dispute with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) over the San Bernardino shooting in 2016, when Apple refused to assist investigators to unlock the iPhone owned by the gunner . Although the company does establish a profile that protects users’ privacy and data, including minimizing the amount of data collected, anonymizing it, and using encryption where possible, Apple still adheres to law enforcement’s requests for data search warrant.
Tech companies are battling government agencies to try to maintain strong cryptographic mechanisms without even considering the possibility of weakening such security. In a document submitted to the Australian Parliament’s Joint Committee in 2018, Apple warned that these data requests are risky because the threat of eavesdropping on personal data “will only become more severe and complex over time.”
This is likely related to the possibility of abuse of the “backdoor”. In addition to the potential for hackers to enter the weak link of encryption, creating a “backdoor” may lead to law enforcement or government requirements to go beyond combating crime and may even be used in other areas.