Cyber Risk

U.S. signals tougher stance with tech companies on encryption

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Tuesday sharply criticized technology companies that have built strongly encrypted products, suggesting Silicon Valley is more willing to comply with foreign government demands for data than those made by their home country.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein speaks during a news conference on the dangers law enforcement and first responders face when encountering fentanyl at DEA Headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

While echoing many arguments made by previous senior U.S. law enforcement officials, Rosenstein struck a harder line than his predecessors who led the Obama Justice Department, dismissing attempts to negotiate with the tech sector as a waste of time and accusing companies of putting sales over stopping crime.

“Company leaders may be willing to meet, but often they respond by criticizing the government and promising stronger encryption,” Rosenstein said during a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland, according to a copy of his remarks. “Of course they do. They are in the business of selling products and making money. ... We are in the business of preventing crime and saving lives.”

Rosenstein’s first lengthy comments on encryption signaled a desire for Congress to write legislation mandating that companies provide access to encrypted products when a law enforcement agency obtains a court order.

Tech companies and many cyber security experts say requiring law enforcement access to encrypted products will broadly weaken cyber security for everyone. U.S. officials have countered that default encryption settings hinder their ability to collect evidence needed to pursue criminals.

Previous officials have urged such an approach, but Rosenstein more directly criticized Silicon Valley. He cited a series of media reports to suggest U.S.-based companies are more willing to accede to demands for data from foreign governments than they are from the United States.

The remarks were quickly denounced by supporters of strong encryption.

“Despite his attempts at rebranding, a government backdoor by another name will still make it easier for criminals, predators and foreign hackers to break into our phones and computers,” Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said in a statement.

The decades-old feud over encryption reignited last year when the Justice Department attempted to force Apple Inc AAPL.O to break into an iPhone used by a gunman during a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

The clash subsided when an unidentified third party outside the government came forward with a way to crack the phone.

Some U.S. lawmakers expressed interest in legislation that would require companies to help law enforcement access encrypted data. The effort crumbled due to a lack of political support and a decision by the Obama administration to not endorse it.

Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Jonathan Oatis