As Apple's legal battle with the FBI over encryption heads toward a showdown, there appears to be little hope for a compromise that would placate both sides and avert a divisive court decision. The FBI is pressing Apple to develop a system that would allow the law enforcement agency to break into a locked iPhone used by one of the attackers in the San Bernardino, California, shootings, a demand the tech company claims would make all its devices vulnerable.
In an effort to break the deadlock, some United States lawmakers are pushing for a panel of experts to study the issue of access to encrypted devices for law enforcement in order to find common ground. Senator Mark Warner and Representative Mike McCaul on Monday proposed the creation of a 16-member "National Commission on Security and Technology Challenges."
But digital rights activists warn that the issue provides little middle ground - that once law enforcement gains a "back door," there would be no way to close it. "We are concerned that the commission may focus on short-sighted solutions involving mandated or compelled back doors," said Joseph Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology. "Make no mistake, there can be no compromise on back doors. Strong encryption makes anyone who has a cellphone or who uses the Internet far more secure." Kevin Bankston of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute expressed similar concerns. "We've already had a wide-range of blue ribbon expert panels consider the issue," he said. "And all have concluded either that surveillance back doors are a dangerously bad idea, that law enforcement's concerns about ‘going dark' are overblown, or both."
The debate had been simmering for years before the Apple-FBI row. Last year, a panel led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists warned against "special access" for law enforcement, saying they pose "grave security risks" and "imperil innovation." "I'm not sure there is much room for compromise from a technical perspective," said Stephen Wicker, a Cornell University professor of computer engineering who specializes in mobile computing security.