The Cable

In Silicon Valley, Sparks Fly Over Apple Battle

The RSA Conference begins on a sour note as Washington clashes with the tech community over encryption.

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 23: A protestor holds up an iPhone that reads, "No Entry" outside of the the Apple store on 5th Avenue on February 23, 2016 in New York City. Protestors gathered to support Apple's decision to resist the FBI's pressure to build a "backdoor" to the iPhone of Syed Rizwan, one of the two San Bernardino shooters. (Photo by )
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 23: A protestor holds up an iPhone that reads, "No Entry" outside of the the Apple store on 5th Avenue on February 23, 2016 in New York City. Protestors gathered to support Apple's decision to resist the FBI's pressure to build a "backdoor" to the iPhone of Syed Rizwan, one of the two San Bernardino shooters. (Photo by )

SAN FRANCISCO — A bevy of U.S. government officials descended on Silicon Valley Tuesday to preach a gospel of cooperation with the tech industry and mend a relationship that has been deeply strained by the FBI’s attempt to compel Apple to unlock one of its iPhones. By way of reply, U.S. tech executives didn’t quite tell them to go to hell — but they came close.

“When it comes to security there is no technology that is more important than encryption,” Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer told a packed conference room. “The pathway to hell begins at the backdoor.”

Smith was referring to a court order compelling Apple to undermine its own security systems to allow the FBI access to the iPhone 5c of Syed Rizwan Farook, who together with his wife killed 14 people at a December shooting spree in San Bernardino, Calif. Apple has refused to comply with that order and argues that the court order amounts to a “backdoor” that could allow hackers or state intelligence agencies covert access to encrypted data on customers’ phones.

The court order has touched off a national debate that played out on both coasts Tuesday. In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Apple General Counsel Bruce Sewell faced off with FBI Director Jim Comey and argued that the tool his company has been asked to create “would set a dangerous precedent for government intrusion on the privacy and safety of its citizens.”

For his part, Comey admitted that the FBI had erred in directing San Bernardino County officials to reset the iCloud password for the phone. An iPhone with automatic back-ups enabled will save data to the cloud when it connects to a recognized wifi network. Apple, in turn, can easily turn that information over to the government because it doesn’t encrypt information stored in the cloud. But the password reset disabled that feature, preventing a remote backup of the phone and blocking FBI access to some of the data now being sought by court order.

The foul-up by the bureau has been cited by technologists as evidence of the FBI’s stumbling approach in the case and has raised questions about whether Apple should be forced to compensate for the law enforcement error.

In San Francisco, where some 30,000 people are attending the annual RSA Conference, a who’s-who’s gathering of tech and security firms, Attorney General Loretta Lynch came bearing an olive branch on a separate point of contention between Silicon Valley and Washington: whether U.S. firms given a valid court order in a foreign country can give authorities there information stored on servers in the United States that belong to non-Americans. Authorities in countries including Brazil and Belgium say they need timely access to that information for criminal and terror investigations.

U.S. tech firms are currently barred by U.S. privacy laws from releasing such information to foreign governments directly, even when presented with a valid court order from a foreign court. This has left major companies such as Microsoft in a legal bind, where the laws of one country require them to do one thing while American statutes require them to do the opposite.

In her remarks to the conference, Lynch said the United States is negotiating an agreement with the United Kingdom that would allow authorities there to present American firms with subpoenas for information on U.S. servers dealing with non-U.S. citizens. Under the potential agreement, companies would be allowed to comply with such subpoenas. But implementing the agreement would require congressional action, Lynch said.

Such an agreement would likely be welcomed by Silicon Valley, and the decision by Lynch to announce the negotiations at the RSA Conference was clearly meant as a gesture to the industry.

The prosecutors going after Apple in a California federal court ultimately report to Lynch, and the attorney general went to great lengths on Tuesday to smooth relations with the company. She heaped praise on the Silicon Valley behemoth, saying the company has on the whole been cooperative with the FBI. She called Apple CEO Tim Cook — who has made a series of aggressive public statements denouncing the government’s position — “a great guy, a great Southerner — as am I.”

But Lynch made no indication that the government is backing down in its fight with Apple. Lynch said the dispute has wide implications for law enforcement’s ability to carry out investigations and that the widespread adoption of encryption is something that must be balanced against law enforcement needs. “Do we let one company decide this issue for all of us?” she asked, prompting a lone person in a packed, cavernous ballroom to issue a smattering of applause.

If there’s room for compromise between Silicon Valley and Washington on the issue, tech executives gave no indication on Tuesday of what such a solution might look like. Amit Yoran, the president of security firm RSA, which helps manage the conference, used the day’s first keynote address to denounce the government’s approach to encryption. “Contrary to the ‘going dark’ rhetoric, we live in a golden age of surveillance,” Yoran said, referring to a slogan Comey often uses to describe his agent’s problems accessing encrypted devices. Proposals to weaken encryption are “so misguided as to boggle the mind,” Yoran said.

Speaking before a giant image of NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden, Smith, the Microsoft executive, argued that customer trust in the sanctity of their personal information stored on American computer systems “has been questioned for good reason.” Snowden’s revelations included allegations that companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple had helped facilitate American surveillance operations. Following the revelations, these companies stepped up their use of encryption, at least in part to guard against the perception that they were in the NSA’s pocket. Smith said that Microsoft backs Apple’s position in the San Bernardino case.

Indeed, Tuesday’s keynotes featured a celebration of the pioneers of encryption that have made possible the kind of technology the U.S. government has now gone to court to unlock. During the so-called “cryptographer’s panel,” a video announcement revealed that Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman, two godfathers of widely available encryption, had received the Turing Award, often called the Nobel Prize of computing.

Diffie and Hellman invented what’s known as public key cryptography, a technology that has been called the field’s greatest advancement since the Renaissance. Their breakthrough made possible online commerce and the possibility that two people might be able to communicate in total privacy. When the two men made their breakthrough, the NSA was furious and tried to quash their findings.

Immediately after the announcement of the award and a discussion among these crypto-greybeards, NSA Director Michael Rogers took to the stage, looking a little chagrined. “Certainly an interesting panel to follow, as director of the NSA,” he quipped.

Rogers, too, came preaching a message of cooperation. “This is not going to get better any time soon,” he said, referring to a long list of cyber attacks on both private companies and the government. “It’s the power of partnerships and our ability to work together that will generate the best outcomes.”

But after Tuesday, it remains unclear whether that partnership is on particularly steady footing.

BRYAN THOMAS/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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