Parsing the Mobile Encryption Debate

by Matt Klassen on June 10, 2015

Since the glory days of Blackberry a debate has been raging around the world regarding the balance between user privacy and public safety. On the one hand privacy scandals like the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program have rallied the general public in unprecedented fashion around the idea of better protection for our personal data, a call that tech companies have responded to with a flourish.

On the other hand, however, there are the related needs of public safety and national security, particularly in an age where criminals are becoming increasingly digital, as law enforcement agencies are already lagging woefully behind technology development, now arguing that enhanced encryption standards now put vital intelligence regarding the actions of criminals that much farther out of reach.

It’s a debate that brought the once great Blackberry to its knees, but instead of onerous restrictions on Blackberry’s encryption standards around the world making it easier for governments to access encrypted transmissions, the void Blackberry left in the market was quickly filled with competitors eager to advance privacy technology, once again raising the ire of global law enforcement… and around and around we go.

Now the motivation for tech companies to produce increasing enhanced encryption standards is not hard to find, as such advanced privacy protocols serve as a key market differentiator–something that makes certain companies stand out from the crowd– and thus the likes of Apple, Google, and Microsoft among many others have worked furiously to establish virtually unbreakable encryption standards, placing our personal content out of reach from prying eyes, be they government or criminal (or a mix of the two).

In fact, enhanced encryption security has given birth to an entirely new mobile market niche, one dedicated to providing ultra-secure smartphones, projects that while admittedly are aimed at providing government, military, and certain private sector users with the highest level of protection, now make security so idiot proof that they’ve become the perfect companion to criminals, creating a haven for criminals to communicate away from the eyes of law enforcement.

But while this thorny debate has got the attention of the White House, the tech industry is making its voice heard in an effort to curb any legislation that may impact their ability to protect consumer privacy.

In a strongly worded letter to President Barack Obama on Monday, two industry associations representing major software and hardware companies said, “We are opposed to any policy actions or measures that would undermine encryption as an available and effective tool.”

“Consumer trust in digital products and services is an essential component enabling continued economic growth of the online marketplace,” the industry wrote.

“Accordingly, we urge you not to pursue any policy or proposal that would require or encourage companies to weaken these technologies, including the weakening of encryption or creating encryption ‘work-arounds’.”

While the White House continues to encourage the industry to find ways to satisfactorily appease both sides of this debate without the need for governmental involvement, such legislation still stands as one possible option, and given that the tech industry seems unwilling to offer any concessions regarding mobile encryption, such legislation may, in fact, be inevitable.

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