Steve Jurvetson / Flickr (CC by 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

From encryption to the NSA, what experts want from Obama’s last State of the Union

Experts agree: It sure would be nice if Obama would say that encryption backdoors are a bad idea.


Kevin Collier


Published Jan 12, 2016   Updated May 27, 2021, 9:16 am CDT

Tuesday marks the final time President Barack Obama will give a State of the Union address—one final agenda of what he can accomplish as president.

An area where he’s definitely not staked out a clear agenda? The future of secure online communications. 

Obama has been repeatedly criticized for not taking a firm stance on strong encryption. Should a company like Apple, Google, or Facebook build so-called backdoors into their devices or services, letting law enforcement access user messages and other data, as FBI Director James Comey wants? Or should the White House recognize what most experts say—that building backdoors means hackers can find their way into people’s messages, too—and end the discussion there?

Since this is the last time Obama will deliver a State of the Union speech, we asked technologists and security experts what issues they’d most like to see him address.

Matthew Green, cryptographer and Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute:

“For me, the first answer to that question is simple, though maybe a bit obvious: I’d like to see the president state clearly that U.S. firms will be allowed to deploy strong encryption technology to protect the security of their customers, and that the U.S. will never ask them to compromise on that.

“Failing that, I’d also like to hear the president confirm that the U.S. is going to take steps to address the poor security state of our critical software infrastructure. But I’m not holding my breath on that one.”

Jeffrey Carr, cybersecurity expert and founder and CEO of Taia Global:

“I’d like to see him reaffirm the importance of staying calm in the face of domestic terrorism, and renounce policies that break encryption or give the government the right to have a ‘backdoor’ into our private communications and actions online.”

Amie Stepanovich, U.S. Policy Manager, Access Now:

“President Obama should stand up for strong digital security and voice his commitment to promoting, and never undermining, encryption.”

Kate Krauss, Director of Communications for the Tor Project:

“‘Liberty’ includes liberty online—if you live a happy private life but your email is being harvested by the U.S. government in mass surveillance, you are not actually free. The government doesn’t have the right to search everyone’s bedroom just because there is a thief in the neighborhood.

“Tor supports strong encryption so that power remains in the hands of the people in our democratic society and is not diverted by those who would like to keep it for themselves. We oppose backdoors to strong encryption. We believe in democratic principles such as the separation of powers, which strong encryption and online privacy help enforce. We believe in freedom of the press, which encryption and online privacy help preserve. We believe that one arm of the government should not be undermining another through spying.”

Andrew Crocker, staff attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation civil liberties team:

“Two really big ones would be affirmative statements on encryption, an issue we’ve kind of been dogging the administration about recently, where we had this petition that we co-organized with Access Now where we’re calling on the White House to affirmatively support strong encryption and say what that means—that they would support end-to-end encryption, and wouldn’t support any kind of backdoor legislation or otherwise subvert encryption. We really have been trying to get the administration to come out and say something positive about it rather than it’s a statement they’ve had so far.

“Do I think it’s realistic? Probably not, but it’d be nice to see.

“The other figure here would be NSA reform. We had the USA Freedom Act pass since the last state of the Union and I’m sure he’ll allude to that, but that really only addresses some small portion of the [National Security Agency’s] activities. We haven’t really seen any reform on the [Section] 702 [of the FISA Amendments Act, which authorizes many foreign surveillance programs], or [Executive order] 12333, and certainly with that story the Wall Street Journal broke just before New Year’s about spying on members of Congress […] we’re sort of hopeful that there’ll be some attention to that in coming months.”

Photo via Steve Jurvetson/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Jan 12, 2016, 5:00 pm CST