For months, federal law enforcement agencies and industry have been deadlocked on a highly contentious issue: Should tech companies be obliged to guarantee government access to encrypted data on smartphones and other digital devices, and is that even possible without compromising the security of law-abiding customers?
Recently, the head of the National Security Agency provided a rare hint of what some U.S. officials think might be a technical solution. Why not, suggested Adm. Michael S. Rogers, require technology companies to create a digital key that could open any smartphone or other locked device to obtain text messages or photos, but divide the key into pieces so that no one person or agency alone could decide to use it?
“I don’t want a back door,” Rogers, the director of the nation’s top electronic spy agency, said during a speech at Princeton University, using a tech industry term for covert measures to bypass device security. “I want a front door. And I want the front door to have multiple locks. Big locks.” Law enforcement and intelligence officials have been warning that the growing use of encryption could seriously hinder criminal and national security investigations. But the White House, which is preparing a report for President Obama on the issue, is still weighing a range of options, including whether authorities have other ways to get the data they need rather than compelling companies through regulatory or legislative action.
The task is not easy. Those taking part in the debate have polarized views, with advocates of default commercial encryption finding little common ground with government officials who see increasing peril as the technology becomes widespread on mobile phones and on text messaging apps.