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Obama hints at tougher stance on encryption

The White House has begun raising concerns with tech firms over terrorists' use of encryption and social media as president Obama signals he plans to urge tech firms to help

US president Barack Obama has hinted that he is considering a tougher stance against strong encryption, despite rejecting a proposal in October 2015 to allow backdoors for law enforcement.

In an address to the nation in response to the recent killings in San Bernadino, California, which the US views as an act of terrorism, Obama said he would urge high-tech leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice.

However, the US president did not provide any details of how he planned to work with the technology industry to achieve this goal.

In November 2015, a coalition of the world’s largest tech firms issued an open letter to Obama to oppose any form of weakened encryption or back doors to allow access to encrypted data.

But commentators said Obama’s latest statement indicated he may be reconsidering his position on encryption.

In October 2015, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) noted that, despite the fact that Obama had stopped short of a law requiring backdoors, he was continuing the status quo of informally pressuring companies to give the government access to unencrypted data.

In January 2015, Obama said it was “a problem” if technologies prevent law enforcement officers from tracking people they are confident are terrorists.

The ongoing debate has been fuelled in recent weeks by the terror attack in Paris and, more recently, the US shootings in San Bernadino.

According to US reports, the White House has already begun raising its concerns with tech firms about reports that terrorists may have used encrypted technology to co-ordinate and plan attacks in Paris on 13 November that killed 130 people.

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Tashfeen Malik, one of the attackers in the 2 December shooting in San Bernardino, also posted extremist messages, including a pledge to the leader of Islamic State on a Facebook page, said law enforcement authorities, underlining concerns about the use of social media by terror groups.

In November 2015, Islamic State published a guide on how to avoid being hacked that suggested using encrypted messaging services and connections to communicate.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner to succeed Obama in 2017, echoed the US president’s comments, saying technology companies need to join the fight against Islamic State.

“We’re going to need help from Facebook and YouTube and Twitter,” the former secretary of state said during a television interview on 6 December.  

Tech firms “cannot permit the recruitment and the actual direction of attacks or the celebration of violence by the sophisticated internet user”, she said.

But US officials have been quick to deny that Obama is reconsidering his decision not to seek legislation requiring technology firms to create backdoors to access encrypted communications, according to some US reports.

An unnamed official said that while the US did not want its companies to be disadvantaged, the government hoped the firms would help prevent the technologies from being used in terror attacks, according to LiveMint.

In the wake of the revelations of mass US surveillance of phones and the internet by whistleblower Edward Snowden, many technology firms have introduced encryption to retain their customers’ trust, but law enforcement officials around the world have warned this is making it harder for them to track and trace criminal and terrorist activity.

“There should be no dark, ungoverned spaces on the internet,” Bernard Hogan-Howe, head of London's Metropolitan Police Service, told a briefing hosted by the security and resilience network of the business membership organisation London First in May 2015.

In November, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance released a report calling for access to encrypted data on smartphones.

The report called for smartphones to be made subject to search warrants that could compel Apple and Google to unlock encrypted data held on the device, but industry commentators said weakened encryption would not be practical and could harm US commerce.

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