As China pressures Apple and Google, Obama reportedly leans toward strong encryption

The crypto wars are going global.


Patrick Howell O'Neill


Published Sep 17, 2015   Updated May 27, 2021, 11:19 pm CDT

The crypto wars are going global.

As the debate over encryption and backdoors pulses through Western capitals, the Chinese government sent letters to American companies asking them to make their products “secure and controllable,” a term widely seen to mean the companies may be forced to build backdoors that allow Chinese government access into their products, the New York Times reports.

Backdoors are weaknesses in encryption technology that allows those who know about them to access ostensibly secure data, like emails, chat messages, documents, or other sensitive data.

The revelation of China‘s backdoor ambitions comes one week before Chinese President Xi Jinping makes his first state visit to the U.S. After a tech forum in Seattle, he’s expected to discuss cybersecurity issues with U.S. President Barack Obama, who has said he’s considering both sanctions and “retaliation” for alleged Chinese cyberattacks against America.

The letters were sent this summer to American tech firms by the China Information Technology Security Evaluation Center.

The Chinese tech market is already enormous and growing fast, as the most populous nation and earth’s second largest economy raises an unprecedented middle class with a big appetite for modern tech products.

The Chinese are thus aware of the leverage they hold over foreign companies coveting their domestic markets.

For the last year, American officials like FBI Director James Comey have pushed a conversation about legally mandating backdoors into tech products so that the government will maintain access when it deems necessary. The pressure from law enforcement has reportedly pushed the Obama administration to consider requiring some form of backdoor access to popular consumer technology, like iPhones and Android devices, which enable encryption on locked devices.

The White House, however, is reportedly moving away from legally mandated backdoors at the urgings of “officials in the commerce, diplomatic, trade and technology agencies” who support widespread encryption, the Washington Post reports.

In Europe, similar debates are roiling through London and Paris.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said he’ll introduce legislation this fall mandating companies like Apple and Google provide government authorities access to encrypted data. 

That’s the same as legally mandating a backdoor, although that terminology is never used by any government, apparently for fear of negative implications.

H/T New York Times | Illustration by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Sep 17, 2015, 11:15 am CDT