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Does anyone really want the government deciding encryption policy?

Evan Schuman | Jan. 27, 2016
Security and privacy debates are highly nuanced, allowing for much interpretation, balancing acts and differences of opinion.

Easy Everyday Encryption
Credit: Perspecsys Photos via Flickr

Security and privacy debates are highly nuanced, allowing for much interpretation, balancing acts and differences of opinion. For that reason, I try and be tolerant of a wide range of views on the subject. Every so often, though, some executive says something so divorced from logic and reality that silence is not an option. Enter AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson and his attack on Apple's encryption efforts.

Far be it from me to suggest that AT&T is really the last company on the planet that should be wading onto a public debate on privacy issues. As The Verge observed: "Documents leaked by Edward Snowden portray the relationship between AT&T and the government as rather cozy. AT&T is credited as being 'highly collaborative' and has installed far more surveillance equipment than its fellow U.S. wireless carriers. The government has paid AT&T millions of dollars in return."

But there's no reason to go there. The encryption argument falls apart on its own merits.

Let's start with what the AT&T CEO told The Wall Street Journal last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Stephenson was discussing Apple CEO Tim Cook's many comments that Apple devices will not create a backdoor for government agents to use to monitor communication.

“I don’t think it is Silicon Valley’s decision to make about whether encryption is the right thing to do. I understand Tim Cook’s decision, but I don’t think it’s his decision to make,” Stephenson said. “I personally think that this is an issue that should be decided by the American people and Congress, not by companies."

The American people and Congress? Is he envisioning some sort of a national referendum on encryption policy? Let's assume he meant "the American people via Congress," which is frightening enough on its own.

Members of Congress overwhelmingly choose from positions argued by different lobbying forces—and AT&T is one of the most prominent. (And, in fairness, so is Apple.) There are no well-funded advocates for privacy in those chats, so it's a rather one-sided discussion.

Members of the intelligence community argue their need for data access, along the lines of "if it's a device that terrorists can use, it's a device that we need to be able to monitor." That's a fair point. Apple's counter is that any backdoor that the intelligence community can use is also going to be a way for bad guys to listen in. And "bad guys" in this reference means terrorists and cyberthieves as well as rank-and-file burglars and murderers looking to track targets.

Of course, Apple's motivation is not to protect privacy as much as to give consumers a reason to buy watches, phones and tablets from Apple instead of somebody else.


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