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Tech Giants Urge Obama To Block Smartphone Surveillance

A letter signed by Google, Apple, Facebook, and others asks President Barack Obama to reject legislative proposals that would grant law enforcement agencies "backdoor access" to encrypted personal information.

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Dozens of tech industry titans — Apple, Google, and Facebook among them — are pressuring President Obama to keep law enforcement agencies out of our smartphones.

On Tuesday a coalition of over 140 tech companies, security experts, and advocacy groups sent a letter urging Obama to respect the constitutional rights of American citizens as federal law enforcement pleads for greater surveillance power. Specifically at issue here: calls for tech companies to install encryption "backdoors" in their devices and services — technical work-arounds that would grant the FBI access to encrypted consumer data.

"We urge you to reject any proposal that U.S. companies deliberately weaken the security of their products," stated the letter.

The coalition letter — also signed by Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation — follows a recent congressional hearing during which the political dispute over the encryption of consumer data was on full display. Then, Amy Hess, a top FBI official, and Daniel Conley, a federal prosecutor, attacked the popular use of strong encryption on cell phones, arguing that such protective measures hinder criminal investigations and impede the government's ability to ensure national security. Pitted against Hess and Conley were a trio of expert witnesses claiming that encryption backdoors necessarily compromise security, undermine U.S. economic interests abroad, and jeopardize privacy rights.

The tech giants and civil liberties groups behind today's letter made largely the same argument.

"Whether you call them 'front doors' or 'back doors', introducing intentional vulnerabilities into secure products for the government's use will make those products less secure against other attackers," the letter reads. "Every computer security expert that has spoken publicly on this issue agrees on this point, including the government's own experts."

Despite FBI Director James Comey's repeated calls for lawmakers to propose a legislative fix mandating backdoors on mobile devices, Congress remains highly skeptical.

"Civil society organizations, technology companies, and everyday Americans are now revolting against the massive and warrantless federal overreach by our intelligence and law enforcement agencies," Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California and a member of the Oversight Committee, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.

"As a computer science major, it is clear to me that the FBI's proposal to force private-sector companies to install backdoors that intentionally weaken encryption systems is not only a radical invasion of our privacy, it is technologically irresponsible."

Lieu's remarks echo those recently made by Jason Chaffetz, chair of the Oversight Committee. Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, has been critical of the idea that backdoors will be used only by well-intentioned officers of the law. "Vulnerability is all or nothing, folks," he said at a hearing in late April. "It's not just a little bit. It's not just for the good guys."

Hamza Shaban is a technology policy reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

Contact Hamza Shaban at Hamza.Shaban@buzzfeed.com.

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