Since the 1990s, U.S. law enforcement has expressed concern about “going dark,” roughly defined as an inability to access encrypted communications or data even with a court order. Silicon Valley companies are rolling out encrypted products that allow users alone to access their data, and in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attacks, law enforcement officials argue that their fears are being realized. The FBI is engaged in a public battle with Apple over access to data stored on the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino attackers and cautions that encrypted messaging apps could hinder the organization’s ability to uncover terrorism plots.
To prevent future attacks, law enforcement has urged U.S. tech giants to build in “backdoors” or “front doors” to their products — essentially, the technical ability to decrypt communications pursuant to a warrant. Silicon Valley and computer scientists argue that any solution allowing someone other than the data’s owner to decrypt communications amounts to a flaw that could be exploited by criminals and state actors and thus weakens security for everyone. Moreover, proponents of encryption point out that numerous countries and groups have developed their own products and services, meaning anti-encryption policies will only hurt the competitiveness of U.S. companies without providing access to a great deal of suspect communications. Despite the technologists’ claim of the intractability of the problem, U.S. officials insist there is a technological workaround and have sought to compel tech companies’ assistance to break into encrypted devices.