Last October, White House officials retreated from the idea that tech companies should be required to create "back doors" that would allow authorities to defeat encryption techniques.
Now that a dispute about encryption between Apple and the FBI has erupted in court, four Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee are reminding everyone that the Obama administration had good reasons to stop pressing for back doors.
“Properly understood, strong encryption is our best defense against online criminals -- including terrorist organizations," Reps. John Conyers (Michigan), Jerrold Nadler (New York), Zoe Lofgren (California) and Shiela Jackson Lee (Texas), stated Thursday. "It is the backbone of the Internet economy and vital for the protection of both free expression and privacy."
The lawmakers are responding to the widely publicized news that U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym in the Central District of California ordered Apple to build software that could help the authorities defeat encryption on an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.
Apple is challenging that order in court. The company has no realistic choice, given the far-reaching ramifications of Pym's ruling, which could have a devastating impact on online security.
Twitter, Facebook and Google have all expressed support for Apple, as have digital rights advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Among other arguments, Apple CEO Tim Cook arguing that once this type of software is created, it could be used to hack anyone's device. That concern is shared by many online security experts.
"Once Apple creates a bypass, the methodology will be analyzed, studied and exploited by sophisticated criminals at first, and then by others," the think tank Future of Privacy Forum writes. "There may or may not be any useful clues on the iPhone of the San Bernardino killers, but it is for certain that many criminals in the future will find data they want on the iPhones of consumers, if an exploit is created to bypass passwords, encryption and other protections."
The organization adds that one result of Apple's strong encryption is that iPhone theft rates dropped by as much as 50% in some cities after the company introduced its current digital locks.
Daniel Weitzner, former White House deputy chief technology officer for Internet policy, made the same point last November, in a Washington Post column written after the terrorist attacks in Paris. "Even if we think we have an exceptional access solution for Apple or Google to deploy, we have to imagine whether it’s tolerable for it to end up in the hands of bad actors," he wrote. "This puts both users and Internet companies in the impossible position of either compromising basic human rights or forgoing access to the world’s largest markets such as China and Russia."
The Democratic lawmakers backing Apple add that requiring the company to hack an iPhone would threaten "the trust of millions of customers" and place U.S. technology "at a significant disadvantage abroad."
Apple is expect to file papers challenging Pym's order by next Friday.