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US government backs down over privacy dispute

The Obama administration has agreed not to force technology companies such as Apple, Google and Microsoft to provide access to encrypted personal files. Though the decision has angered the FBI, the government has now officially concluded that there is no way to allow intelligence agencies “back door” access to private data without leaving glaring vulnerabilities that could be exploited by cybercriminals.

As reported by the Boston Globe, the government will no longer seek access to user data stored by tech companies like Apple. Though the administration has said it will still ask for cooperation from these parties, it “determined that the government should not force them to breach the security of their products.”

Apple’s iOS operating system is designed to encrypt “virtually everything” in the customer’s device itself, rather than in the cloud. FBI Director James Comey was frustrated by this last year, as it means that even if the government ask Apple to reveal personal data from a customer’s iPhone, it wouldn’t be able to comply as the “keys” are left in the hands of the user. Quite literally, in the case of Touch ID fingerprint recognition. This latest decision from the Obama administration means this can remain the case going forward.

The world’s expert cryptographers, along with most of Silicon Valley, were concerned that any attempt to add in government-only access to encrypted files would be inherently weakening security. They argued that building in weakness was not a good compromise – if the law enforcement can get in there, potentially hackers, terrorists and other nation’s intelligence agencies could too.

Another factor that swung the dispute in Apple’s favor is the fact that government officials’ data was attacked by Chinese hackers earlier this year. The security breach “called into question whether the government could keep the keys to the world’s communications safe” from future cyber-attacks.

Ultimately this will be considered by most as a win for privacy. Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies have argued that, increasingly, people store “their entire digital lives” in their phones. Not just private messages and emails, but medical records and bank details.  Obama has stated that although he is “sympathetic to the concerns of law enforcement officials,” his administration would seek to balance the interests of agencies such as the FBI with the privacy concerns of the general public.