Silicon Valley celebrated last fall when the White House revealed it would not seek legislation forcing technology makers to install “backdoors” in their software — secret listening posts where investigators could pierce the veil of secrecy on users’ encrypted data, from text messages to video chats. But while the companies may have thought that was the final word, in fact the government was working on a Plan B.
In a secret meeting convened by the White House around Thanksgiving, senior national security officials ordered agencies across the U.S. government to find ways to counter encryption software and gain access to the most heavily protected user data on the most secure consumer devices, including Apple Inc.’s iPhone, the marquee product of one of America’s most valuable companies, according to two people familiar with the decision.
The approach was formalized in a confidential National Security Council “decision memo,” tasking government agencies with developing encryption workarounds, estimating additional budgets and identifying laws that may need to be changed to counter what FBI Director James Comey calls the “going dark” problem: investigators being unable to access the contents of encrypted data stored on mobile devices or traveling across the Internet. Details of the memo reveal that, in private, the government was honing a sharper edge to its relationship with Silicon Valley alongside more public signs of rapprochement.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice have the Obama administration’s “full” support in the matter. The government is “not asking Apple to redesign its product or to create a new backdoor to their products,” but rather are seeking entry “to this one device,” he said.
Security specialists say the case carries enormous consequences, for privacy and the competitiveness of U.S. businesses, and that the National Security Council directive, which has not been previously reported, shows that technology companies underestimated the resolve of the U.S. government to access encrypted data.