Ever since the terrorist Paris attacks in November the debate over government ‘backdoors’ into encryption has been back in the spotlight. For obvious reasons the US is at the forefront of the dispute as it is home to an overwhelming share of the world’s leading businesses in the digital sector.
US authorities are increasingly seeking the cooperation of these companies with regard to special access on encrypted systems as part of the on-going government campaign against terrorism.
However, Silicon valley companies and civil society groups reject such calls on the grounds that this will undermine the digital security, posing a threat to crucial rights such as privacy or freedom of expression (Apple CEO Tim Cook has emerged as the most vocal industry leader in criticizing federal plans to weaken encryption).
The truth is both camps may have a point. That is why it is difficult to pick a side in such a complex and mostly technical discussion, as it is very hard to tell how to strike a right balance between security and privacy matters.
In this respect, it is interesting to note the opinion expressed by AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum that is currently taking place in Davos.
According to Mr. Stephenson, it’s the congress, not the companies, that should determine U.S. policy on access to encrypted data on cellphones and other devices. “I personally think that this is an issue that should be decided by the American people and Congress, not by companies,” Mr. Stephenson said on Wednesday, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
For the record, Mr. Stephenson added that his own company has been unfairly singled out in the debate over access to data. “It is silliness to say there’s some kind of conspiracy between the U.S. government and AT&T,” he said, clarifying that the company turns over information only when accompanied by a warrant or court order.
It is hard to dissent with the fact that the decision on access to encrypted data should lie with democratically elected instances.
Encryption is bound to become a key issue on the 2016 presidential race – as the latest Democratic Party presidential debate has clearly shown –, although barely 10% of US adults say they have encrypted their communications, according to a recent Pew Research poll. Therefore, the American electorate will soon have a say on the matter.
This could sound as a simplistic way to address the issue (digital activites are pointing out that US politicians have little knowledge of the issue).
But if the topic of encryption is properly addressed in the context of an open and democratic discussion, and any action is ultimately taken with the backing of elected representatives, there is little reason to complain.
Even so (and if basic rights are being put at risk, as some may suggest) modern democracies, such as the US, offer the legal means to challenge – and sometimes reverse – a decision through federal courts.