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Barack Obama's administration is having the same fight over encryption Bill Clinton's did in 1993

President Barack Obama sort of came around to encryption regulation during his 2016 SXSW keynote, but his administration remains divided.
President Barack Obama sort of came around to encryption regulation during his 2016 SXSW keynote, but his administration remains divided.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

When it comes to mandating tech companies to help law enforcement agencies fight crime, the White House is divided territory.

President Barack Obama's administration is refusing to publicly support proposed legislation that would legally require tech companies like Apple to help law enforcement agencies access encrypted data, Reuters reported Thursday.

While Obama himself has maybe come around to the idea of legally addressing the government's access to encrypted data, it seems his advisers are more skeptical of Congress's attempts to regulate encryption.

"My conclusion so far is you cannot take an absolutist view own this," Obama said at South by Southwest last month during the fight between Apple and the FBI over unlocking the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooting suspects.

"If your argument is strong encryption no matter what, and we can and should in fact create black boxes, that, I think, does not strike the kind of balance we have lived with for 200, 300 years. And it's fetishizing our phones above every other value. That can't be the right answer."

The bipartisan bill from Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Richard Burr (R-NC), the top members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, would give federal judges authority to command tech companies to aid federal agencies, but it "does not spell out what companies might have to do or the circumstances under which they could be ordered to help," Reuters reports.

According to Reuters, while Obama's administration has given its input on the bill, which could be introduced this week, it will not be taking a public stance on the issue.

The fight over encryption is old, and it's only going to be dragged out longer

This difference in opinion in the White House is part of a much longer political history of encryption debate.

Bill Clinton's administration was having this same conversation in 1990s when he introduced the "Clipper Chip" initiative to give the government the power to monitor encrypted phone conversations.

"This new technology will help companies protect proprietary information, protect the privacy of personal phone conversations and prevent unauthorized release of data transmitted electronically. At the same time this technology preserves the ability of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to intercept lawfully the phone conversations of criminals," Clinton's press secretary announced in 1993.

And tech companies and civil liberties advocates have long fought back. The Clipper Chip caused what the New York Times then called the "first holy war of the information highway," which eventually led to the proposal's demise three years later.

Last year, internal disagreement and pressure from Silicon Valley caused the White House to step back from legislation that would mandate tech companies to provide "backdoor" access to encrypted data. The White House concluded that the bill would create dangerous openings for hackers from around the world.

And this week the world's largest messaging application, WhatsApp, began comprehensively encrypting all communications on its service without building a "backdoor" access point — essentially making it impossible for the company to help law enforcement agencies access messages.

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