RSA Conference Reveals More Nuances in FBI-Apple Battle

By now, everyone knows the general outline of the argument between Apple and the FBI, over the latter’s request for a backdoor into the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. Apple’s refusal to do so has sparked a war of words and legal actions between Apple and other proponents of data protection/digital privacy and the government, as well as others who believe national security trumps digital privacy. More recently, at the RSA Conference, an information security event, more nuances were revealed.

Among the people who see the issue in black and white is former Department of Homeland Security cyber-security czar Amit Yoran, who is quoted by The New York Times. Now head of the security division of data storage company EMC, Yoran calls the government players “so misguided, they simply boggle the mind.”

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Weakening data protection, says Yoran, would “harm U.S. economic interests on an already suspicious world stage, as well as unconscionably undermine those trying to defend our digital environments in every industry.”

Yoran’s stance was “a typical refrain of conference attendees who see the dispute as an extension of the decades-long struggle between the tech industry and government over encryption,” says NYT. The surprise at the RSA Conference, which draws 40,000 attendees, was the “industry-friendly tone of former government officials.”

Former director of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, for example, decried the idea of compromising tough security to “give authorities admittedly important access to certain types of phones or data.”

Chertoff added that strong security will become even more important as sensors are integrated into “home heating systems, streetlights, the electrical grid and much more.” “Attacks on control systems can have loss of life, and encryption is going to be a key element in a strategy to secure all of this going forward,” he said.

Another unexpected ally was Mike McConnell, a director of the National Security Agency in the 1990s, who says that since joining Booz Allen Hamilton, a military consultancy, he has seen the extensive hacking of Chinese spies. “When you understand that level of extraction of intellectual property, it’s logical that ubiquitous encryption is something the nation needs to have,” he said. “The moral, economic, strategic and technical leadership of the United States is at stake here.”

The debate even divides top Obama officials, reports NYT, which notes that, “some of the president’s most senior aides are staking out a variety of positions on the issue.” FBI director James Comey testified in Congress about the need for government action, but avoided stating the need for a new law, which the White House said it wouldn’t seek. Then Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stressed that data security, including encryption is “absolutely essential.”

Officials from the National Security Agency, the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon simply “cannot find a middle ground,” although Commerce officials noted that if all U.S. products must be able to be decrypted, it would be a big boost to foreign encryption manufacturers.