Apple and Facebook remained resolute in their vow not to build back doors into their products for law enforcement to potentially view the private communications of billions of users, despite pressure from Senate Judiciary Committee legislators and the U.S. Attorney General.
In a reportedly contentious committee hearing on Tuesday, December 10, Senators and the tech giants squabbled over security, privacy and national safety, with Apple and Facebook waving off accusations of harboring criminals in their refusals to back down. The sparring has far reaching implications involving some 2.5 billion users of WhatsApp and Apple’s Messenger combined worldwide. Rather than temper its messaging security, Facebook is looking to extend WhatsApp encryption to end-to-end, meaning that only the sender and recipient will have access to an exchange.
Both Apple and Facebook have repeatedly said they support law enforcement’s efforts to safeguard the nation. Still, involuble user security and privacy is of paramount importance, both from a privacy and a corporate culture standpoint, not only for each company but also for the tech industry writ large. Nevertheless there are extenuating circumstances, the government argues, that transcend the security and privacy of individual users. For example, in 2016, a federal judge ordered Apple to help the Federal Bureau of Investigation unlock an iPhone tied to a 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. Apple refused to execute the order and the FBI ultimately unlocked the phone without the company’s compliance.
The conflict now appears to be approaching an animated level of dispute. In a letter to AG Barr, Will Cathcart and Stan Chudnovsky, the executives overseeing WhatsApp and Apple’s Messenger, said that building a backdoor into their services for law enforcement to access wouldn’t make their users safer. “The ‘backdoor’ access you are demanding for law enforcement would be a gift to criminals, hackers and repressive regimes, creating a way for them to enter our systems and leaving every person on our platforms more vulnerable to real-life harm,” the executives said in a letter sent ahead of the Senate proceedings, as the New York Times reported.
From the Justice Department’s standpoint, AG Barr said that dealing with encryption is one of its top priorities. “We must find a way to balance the need to secure data with public safety and the need for law enforcement to access the information they need to safeguard the public, investigate crimes, and prevent future criminal activity,” Barr and acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan wrote in letter prior to the hearing. “Not doing so hinders our law enforcement agencies’ ability to stop criminals and abusers in their tracks.”
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who chairs the powerful committee and ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), threatened to craft legislation that would force tech companies to provide access to encrypted messaging in criminal investigations. Feinstein, a longtime proponent of law enforcement access to private messages, who previously weighed in on the San Bernardino terrorist attack, traced the government’s line in the sand. “I’m determined to see that there is a way that phones can be unlocked when major crimes are committed,” she said. “It is a vital piece of evidence — whether that’s liked by you or not — at the scene of a crime.”
At this point, the tech industry hasn’t found a way to grant law enforcement access without intentionally creating a vulnerability that could imperil users through infiltration by hackers or government overreach or corporate spying. “We oppose intentionally weakening the security of encrypted systems, because doing so would undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere and leave them vulnerable to hackers, criminals and repressive regimes,” Facebook product management director Jay Sullivan told the committee.