Even as the US Department of Justice battles Apple in court over access to encrypted data, the Obama administration remains split over backing requirements that tech manufacturers provide law enforcement with a “back door” into their products, according to a dozen people familiar with the internal debate.
FBI Director James Comey and the DOJ — who are fighting to access an iPhone tied to the San Bernardino attacks — have long tried and failed to convince other departments to join the broader battle against unbreakable encryption, the current and former government officials said.
Federal justice officials argue that strong encryption makes it harder to track criminals, a central contention in the iPhone case. But officials in other departments — including Commerce, State and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy — counter that encryption is integral to protecting US secrets and the technology industry. The issue has been discussed in meetings of the interagency National Security Council and elsewhere.
Some government officials also worry that confronting the tech sector on the issue could heighten distrust of American products overseas and drive terrorists and top criminals to seek foreign-made encryption.
Several key officials in the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security opposed the fight with Apple based on those concerns, the sources said.
Luke Dembosky — until recently the deputy assistant attorney general for national security and the senior cybersecurity prosecutor on some of the biggest hacking cases in recent years — cast the broader disagreements over encryption as “very healthy.”
“It’s a very big government, and everyone is trying to do the right thing,” said Dembosky, who last week joined the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP. “There are countries where they don’t have these debates.”
NSA Director Michael Rogers has taken a middle ground, saying that strong encryption is important but compromise is desirable.
Years of interagency debates over encryption have left the Obama administration lacking a cohesive policy stance on the issue, many tech industry leaders have said.
The Justice Department last month persuaded a federal judge to order Apple Inc to write software to help unlock an iPhone used by shooter Rizwan Farook in the December attack in San Bernardino. Apple is fighting the order, calling the case an overreach by prosecutors that threatens the security of all iPhones. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for later this month.