President Obama Comments on Back-doors in Encryption

BY CODY POPLIN
LAWFARE

“If we get into a situation which the technologies do not allow us at all to track somebody we’re confident is a terrorist . . . and despite knowing that information, despite having a phone number or a social-media address or email address, that we can’t penetrate that, that’s a problem,” President Obama said. However, he continued by noting the difficult and sometime tenuous balance between security, liberty, and privacy, saying that debate from civil libertarians and privacy groups has been “useful.” The comment, along with several others, came at the end of the briefing, which you can watch in full above.

Major Garrett asks the question (in a three part whopper including potential war with Iran) at roughly 37:00 minute mark. Obama begins to speak on cybersecurity at 45:30 and finishes at 48:45. He then touches on the subject again at 56:55. Prime Minister David Cameron addresses encryption and cybersecurity from 52:35 until 54:00:

Major Garrett:

There is a crucial issue for both countries — backdoors in encryption to protect people and also privacy.  I’d like your comments on that.  Thank you:

Obama:

But we’re still going to have to find ways to make sure that if an al Qaeda affiliate is operating in Great Britain or in the United States, that we can try to prevent real tragedy.  And I think the companies want to see that as well.  They’re patriots.  They have families that they want to see protected.  We just have to work through in many cases what are technical issues.  So it’s not so much that there’s a difference in intent, but how to square the circle on these issues is difficult.  And we’re working with partners like Great Britain and the United Kingdom, but we’re also going to be in dialogue with the companies to try to make that work:

Cameron:

As for the issue on the techniques necessary for our intelligence services to help keep us safe, all I would say — and the President and I had a good discussion about this earlier — I don’t think either of us are trying to annunciate some new doctrine.  The doctrine that I approach this — what?

Q    (Off-mic.):

Cameron:  Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you,  but I take a very simple approach to this, which is ever since we’ve been sending letters to each other or making telephone calls to each other, or mobile phone calls to each other, or indeed contacting each other on the Internet, it has been possible in both our countries, in extremis — in my country by a signed warrant by the Home Secretary — to potentially listen to a call between two terrorists to stop them in their activity.  In your country, a judicial process.  We’ve had our own — we’re not asking for back-doors.  We believe in very clear front doors through legal processes that should help to keep our countries safe:

Obama:

Obviously, in the wake of Paris, our attention is heightened.  But I have to tell you, over the last six years threat streams are fairly constant.  David deals with them every day, I deal with them every day.  Our CT, our counterterrorism professionals deal with them every day.  So I don’t think there’s a situation in which because things are so much more dangerous, the pendulum needs to swing.  I think what we have to find is a consistent framework whereby our publics have confidence that their government can both protect them, but not abuse our capacity to operate in cyberspace.  And because this is a whole new world, as David said, the laws that might have been designed for the traditional wiretap have to be updated.

How we do that needs to be debated, both here in the United States and in the U.K.  I think we’re getting better at it.  I think we’re striking the balance better.  I think the companies here in the United States at least recognize that they have a responsibility to the public, but also want to make sure that they’re meeting their responsibilities to their customers that are using their products.  And so the dialogue that we’re engaged in is designed to make sure that all of us feel confident that if there is an actual threat out there, our law enforcement and our intelligence officers can identify that threat and track that threat at the same time that our governments are not going around phishing into whatever text you might be sending on your smartphone.  And I think that’s something that can be achieved.

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