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Executive Editor

Attorney General doesn’t budge on Apple and encryption in RSA talk

Mar 02, 20163 mins
RSA ConferenceSecurity

Lynch tells RSA Conference crowd that we can have strong encryption that lets law enforcement break it.

SAN FRANCISCO — U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch thinks the government and tech industry should find common ground in the fight over whether Apple should help crack an iPhone used by a terrorist, but her position is that the company should comply, she said during a talk at RSA Conference 2016.

“The middle ground is to do what the law requires,” Lynch said, which in her view is having Apple obey the court order. “Do what you did for years until about a year ago.”

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She was referring to Apple’s earlier ability to decrypt data stored on iPhones – a capability that it has since disabled. It now faces a court order to help the FBI by writing code that would enable a computer to carry out a brute-force attack to open up the phone.

While Lynch called for dialog about the issue, she made it clear her mind was set. Security vendors “need to maintain the ability to obey court orders,” she says. “We can have strong encryption…but we can also have the ability to conduct investigations in the way we always have.”

US Attorney Loretta Lynch

She never directly addressed the objection of encryption experts that maintaining the ability to decrypt inherently weakens encryption for everyone and endangers privacy, the economy and the success of businesses. “Encryption does make us safer. I support encryption. I think we can have both,” she says.

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The shape of law enforcement decrypting devices is not as menacing as it is sometimes made out to be, she says. “Our access to devices needs to be limited and formal,” she says. “The goal is not to rummage around and hope we find something.”

She says that by living in the U.S., citizens have a social compact to work under the framework of laws.

“The ability to get information that could save lives is a real risk,” she says. The question is how to set the scope of what law enforcement can do.

As for invoking a 1789 law to justify the order to Apple, Lynch said “the law has a wonderful, adaptive property” that keeps being relevant as technology advances.

She dismissed an Apple argument made in its court filing protesting the order that complying would infringe the company’s Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate itself. She says Apple is a third party in the case and as such is not being investigated and not at risk of incrimination. “Apple is not a target in this matter,” she says.

She also addressed Apple’s argument that forcing it to write code to break the phone would infringe the company’s First Amendment right to free speech. Lynch said that contained “fascinating issues but not central to this case.”

Lynch said her office is following “time-tested values of law and the obligation to protect people.”