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Big Tech decry Republican bill seeking to break encryption

WhatsApp, Threema

In response to the Lawful Access to Encrypted Data (LAED) Act proposed by three Republican senators, Big Tech companies have registered their opposition through their Reform Government Surveillance coalition. They said that building encryption backdoors would jeopardize the sensitive data of billions of users and “leave all Americans, businesses, and government agencies dangerously exposed to cyber threats from criminals and foreign adversaries”. They also pointed out that as the pandemic has forced everyone to rely on the internet “in critical ways”, digital security is paramount and strong encryption is the way forward.

The coalition’s members are Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Snap Inc., Verizon Media, Dropbox, and Microsoft-owned LinkedIn. The coalition was established in December 2013, a few months after documents about the United States’ PRISM data collection program were leaked.

This is not the first time Big Tech have resisted American government’s calls to undermine encryption.

  • In 2016, Apple refused to assist the FBI in breaking into the iPhone used by one of the San Bernadino shooters, saying that building a backdoor to its encrypted products would undermine the privacy of all its users. FBI eventually managed to get into the phone by exploiting a zero-day vulnerability in the software to bypass its ten-try limitation, Washington Post had reported. Earlier this year too, Apple refused to assist the FBI in breaking into two iPhones of the Saudi gunman who was involved in a shooting at an American naval base in Pensacola (Florida). This time too, FBI found a way to get access to the data without Apple’s assistance, though the method of access is not yet known.
  • In October 2019, when the Times had misreported that a bilateral agreement between the UK and the US could force social media platforms to disclose encrypted messages from serious criminals, Will Cathcart, the head of WhatsApp, had said, “We will always oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would weaken the security of everyone who uses WhatsApp including governments themselves.” He had called backdoors “a horrible idea”. We had later reported the bilateral agreement was a Data Access Agreement under the CLOUD Act and thus did not mandate decryption of encrypted communications, despite government orders to the contrary.
  • In response to an October 2019 open letter by the governments of US, UK and Australia that called on Facebook to not implement end-to-end encryption on its messaging platforms, at least not without building a backdoor, WhatsApp and Facebook replied with a firm no, citing privacy and cybersecurity.

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