Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times
SAN FRANCISCO â Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch joined a parade of Obama administration officials to techâs home turf on Tuesday. Their message: National security depends on the industryâs cooperation.
The heavyweights from Washington arrived against the backdrop of Appleâs fight with the Federal Bureau of Investigation over access to an iPhone and a growing fissure between Washington and Silicon Valley.
The F.B.I. is trying to force Apple to write software to help it break into the phone of one of the gunmen in Decemberâs mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. The phone is protected by a security scheme that would wipe its data after a series of incorrect password attempts. Apple has so far refused to cooperate, and the company is fighting a court order requiring it to aid investigators.
In a speech Tuesday at the RSA Conference, arguably the worldâs largest gathering of computer security experts, Ms. Lynch avoided directly addressing the fight with Apple, and emphasized the need to find middle ground.
âI know that neither our technology companies nor their leaders have any sympathy for terrorists or criminals who target Americans,â Ms. Lynch told an audience at the cityâs Moscone Center. âAnd the Department of Justice will never sacrifice the safety of the American people or the ideals we all cherish.â
But in a stage interview with a Bloomberg journalist, Emily Chang, after her speech, Ms. Lynch was asked what the middle ground would be between the F.B.I. and Apple.
âFor me, the middle groundâ is to do âwhat the law requires,â Ms. Lynch responded, which drew a smattering of laughter and hisses from the audience. She said law enforcement has for years had Appleâs help getting access to iPhones without controversy, and that âhaving the inability to obtain evidence that could save lives is a real risk.â
Though it is focused on a tough password mechanism, the Apple controversy is an extension of a decades-long fight between the tech industry and the federal government over the use of encryption technology. Once considered a carefully regulated munition, not unlike a tank, encryption came into wide use with the advent of the commercial Internet and was the key to modern e-commerce.
The encryption fight was considered by many in Silicon Valley to have been settled in the 1990s, but the widespread government monitoring of Internet traffic revealed in documents released by Edward J. Snowden, the former government contractor, in 2013 led to the renewal of industry efforts to toughen security.
Appleâs fight with the F.B.I. has added to that tension, and a number of other tech companies are expected in the coming days to file court briefs in support of Apple. Among their fears is that creating the software to break into the iPhone could create a backdoor that could be used repeatedly by law enforcement or the spy agencies of other countries.
The director of the National Security Agency, Admiral Michael S. Rogers, also attempted a conciliatory tone at the RSA event. Admiral Rogers did not speak to the Apple case, or even mention the word encryption, but repeatedly emphasized the need for partnership and dialogue to fight cyberthreats. âI implore all of us to be part of that constructive dialogue,â he said. âItâs time to stop talking past each other.â
In a speech made nearby at San Franciscoâs Commonwealth Club, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter acknowledged that encryption had been a âhot topic here in the Bay Area,â but said he could not address the Apple case because of the ongoing litigation. Instead, he noted that the Pentagon had a vested interest in strong encryption and that the Defense Department is âthe largest user of encryption in the world.â
Security experts in the tech industry may not be so quick to embrace conciliation. âYouâre opening a can of worms,â Ron Rivest, a cryptographer and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told a separate RSA audience.
âThe systems we have are so fragile that trying to have extra keys, or extra ways in, or ways to take them apart is asking for all kinds of trouble,â Mr. Rivest said. âThe good of the country depends on having strong security.â
Other cryptographers on the panel with Mr. Rivest agreed, with one notable exception: Adi Shamir, an Israeli cryptographer and co-inventor, with Mr. Rivest and Len Adleman, of the RSA encryption algorithm that became the namesake of the annual security conference.
Mr. Shamir argued that Apple had âgoofedâ by not complying in the San Bernardino case and for not anticipating that the F.B.I. would ask for help to crack the shooterâs iPhone password.
âEven though Apple helped in countless numbers of previous cases, they decided not to comply this time,â Mr. Shamir said. âMy advice would have been, comply this time, and wait for a better test case when the case is not so clearly in favor of the F.B.I.â