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Encryption Debate Ratchets Up

February 19, 2015

The debate on strong encryption has heated up with differing viewpoints from President Barack Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron in the past couple of weeks.

On one side, President Obama says he prefers strong encryption “more than some in law enforcement”, and on the other, Prime Minister Cameron would prefer encryption that provided a “back-door” for government and law enforcement agencies to read encrypted data.

So why would two allies, leaders of countries that have both been victims of terrorism, be on opposite sides of such an important security issue?

Encryption scrambles data that can’t be read by anyone who doesn’t have the proper “keys” to decrypt it.

Strong end-to-end encryption would prevent cyber criminals from reading the sensitive communications, information and files of businesses and individuals and help alleviate the financial and emotional toll hackers exact. This is President Obama’s concern.

It also, however, makes it much more difficult for intelligence and law enforcement to read the communications of cyber criminals, hackers and terrorists. This is Prime Minister Cameron’s concern (President Obama also acknowledged this risk in an interview with RE/Code).

Therein lies the issue — preventing information from falling into the wrong hands while not allowing law enforcement and intelligence agencies to abuse their access, as has happened since the Patriot Act was enacted in response to 9-11.

There is no easy answer for this and I’m not prepared to weigh in one way or another, though I lean toward preventing official agencies from accessing information without reasonable cause rather than the blanket, dragnet access we’ve seen some agencies abuse.

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