- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 9, 2015

After an online petition urging the Obama administration to endorse strong encryption managed to garner more than 100,000 signatures, the White House said this week that it wants Americans to be involved in a “critical conversation” that has already widened a rift between Washington and Silicon Valley in recent months.

Deputy Chief Technology Officer Ed Felten and Michael Daniel, a cybersecurity coordinator for President Obama, said on Tuesday that the administration wants to hear the public’s input as the White House wrestles with whether or not legislative action should be taken to address increasingly ubiquitous and hard-to-break encryption.

“This week, administration officials will sit down with the creators of this petition to hear directly from them about their priorities and concerns,” the two said in a statement. “We also want to hear from you. Share your comments and questions here, and we’ll report back after the meeting.”

“This is a critical conversation, and we want to hear from as many voices as we can,” they said.

Their remarks this week were published on the White House website in direct response to a petition created on the administration’s We the People portal that had garnered 104,110 signatures since September 29 from individuals demanding “privacy, security and integrity for our communications and systems.”

“We demand privacy, security, and integrity for our communications and systems. As a public, we should be confident that the services we use haven’t been weakened or compromised by government mandate or pressure. No legislation, executive order or private agreement with the government should undermine our rights,” the petitioners urged.

Federal and local law enforcement officials had increasingly amplified their concerns over encryption during the last year as tech companies including Apple and Google rolled out services that protect the communications of their customers from eavesdroppers through end-to-end encryption that can’t be cracked. Yet while those discussions briefly subsided in the fall after FBI Director James Comey said the administration would not be pursuing a legal remedy at this time, reports that terrorists, including those aligned with the Islamic State group, have relied on encryption have rekindled that debate in recent weeks.

In an oval office address to the nation on Sunday, Mr. Obama said he “will urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice.”

“American technologists have a unique perspective that makes them essential in finding new ways to combat it. They are the best and most creative in the world, and we need them to bring their expertise, innovation and creativity to bear against the threat of terrorism,” Mr. Felten and Mr. Daniel said this week.

• Andrew Blake can be reached at ablake@washingtontimes.com.

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