WASHINGTON — White House officials will meet with privacy advocates Thursday in response to an online petition urging President Obama to affirm his support for strong encryption.
But it’s not entirely clear who they’re meeting with. The group that initiated the petition, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said it hadn’t been invited to any such meeting.
The meeting is in response to a petition that received 114,110 signatures on the White House web site. In a response Tuesday, two White House officials — Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer Ed Felten and cybersecurity coordinator Michael Daniel — promised a meeting this week with “creators of this petition to hear directly from them about their priorities and concerns.”
“Unfortunately, that’s not true,” wrote Rainey Reitman, the activism director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a blog post. Reitman wrote the petition urging Obama not to weaken the encryption that people use for communicating on the Internet.
“The government should not erode the security of our devices or applications, pressure companies to keep and allow government access to our data, mandate implementation of vulnerabilities or backdoors into products, or have disproportionate access to the keys to private data,” she wrote in the petition, which prompted a formal response from the White House after passing the 100,000 signature threshold in October.
Obama has tried to walk a middle ground on cybersecurity. In an interview with the technology site Recode this year, he said, “There’s no scenario in which we don’t want really strong encryption.” But as recently as Sunday, he also called for law enforcement agencies and technology companies to work through the issue “to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice.”
The White House said technology experts have to be part of a solution. “American technologists have a unique perspective that makes them essential in finding new ways to combat it. They are the best and most creative in the world, and we need them to bring their expertise, innovation, and creativity to bear against the threat of terrorism,” the White House wrote in response to the petition.
In testimony before a Senate committee Wednesday, FBI Director James Comey tried to harmonize privacy concerns with the need to have access to online communications with a court order.
“We understand that encryption is a very important part of being secure on the Internet,” Comey said. “We also all care about public safety. We also all see a collision between those things right now. We see that encryption is getting in the way of our ability to have court orders effective to gather information we need in our most important work. And we all agree we have to figure out whether we can maximize both of those values, safety and security on the Internet and public safety. That’s good news. We’re not at war. We care about the same things.”
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