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Attorney General on Encryption: We Want Legal Access, Not Back Door

Loretta Lynch says encryption is fine as long as tech firms can unlock data under order.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch sent a mixed message on the federal government’s stance on encryption in remarks Friday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“We in the U.S. government are not asking for a back door,” Lynch said, in response to a reporter’s question.

So far, so good — at least, from the perspective of Silicon Valley tech companies that have been arguing the value of strong encryption on mobile devices. Lynch then added a caveat that sounded remarkably like a request that Apple, Google and Facebook figure out a way to circumvent such protections on devices and communications apps like WhatsApp or iMessage.

“We are asking to work with Silicon Valley and the tech industry to make sure that, as we preserve encryption, we also preserve what we currently have — which is the ability for companies to respond to law enforcement warrants, court-ordered, court-authorized requests for information,” Lynch said.

Lynch’s position is similar to that of FBI Director James Comey, who has been criticizing unbreakable encryption ever since Apple and Google announced last year that it would no longer be technically feasible for them to unlock devices for law enforcement.

Comey has consistently argued that this technological advance in device encryption renders the government incapable of accessing real-time chat sessions or retrieving data stored on devices, even when armed with a court order. That undermines the efforts of law enforcement to catch the bad guys.

“We call it ‘going dark,’ and what it means is this: Those charged with protecting our people aren’t always able to access the evidence we need to prosecute crime and prevent terrorism even with lawful authority,” Comey wrote in the fall of 2014. “We have the legal authority to intercept and access communications and information pursuant to a court order, but we often lack the technical ability to do so.”

Comey’s arguments have grown more pointed in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.

Lawmakers are planning to introduce legislation that would establish a national commission to figure out how law enforcement can access encrypted data without jeopardizing privacy or leaving consumers vulnerable to cyber crime. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul announced his intentions at a press conference earlier this week, after outlining the proposal in an op-ed piece that appeared in the Washington Post.

Here are Lynch’s full remarks:

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