Silicon Valley and Washington have spent the past year arguing over whether technology companies should enable users to encrypt their digital lives in such a way that not even the FBI could unscramble the information. The Wall Street Journal reports that as Apple Inc., Google Inc. and their allies dig in their heels, the Obama administration has been reluctant to spell out what it wants. Administration officials have said they don't want Congress to pass a new law or to dictate to how tech companies should write code. Sources say the government has been more specific about its ends—the ability to see people's messages and the information on their phones—than the means.
Administration officials are “still hoping someone will come up with the magical solution that will keep them out of this bind,” said James Lewis, a Washington cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The lack of a government proposal, or vocal White House support, puts FBI Director James Comey in a tough spot as he plans to tell two congressional panels today that his agency needs access to things like suspects' iPhones and WhatsApp messages. Yesterday, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a paper by leading technologists arguing that what Comey seeks is technically impractical and would expose consumers and business to a greater risk of data breaches.