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Microsoft sounds the bell for strong encryption, privacy

Microsoft's top lawyer criticized the U.S. government's efforts to undermine strong encryption, and called on the industry to support and defend the technology.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Microsoft's top lawyer didn't mince words on Monday at RSA Conference 2016 about his company's commitment to protecting strong encryption and customer privacy.

During his keynote, Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer at Microsoft, reiterated his company's support for Apple in its ongoing battle with the FBI, and had harsh words for the U.S. government's actions to circumvent and violate customer privacy.

"It's why we at Microsoft are joining other companies across our industry to stand up for and stand with Apple in this new important case," Smith said to audience applause.

Smith said Microsoft has always been willing to cooperate with law enforcement and government agencies on lawful orders; as an example, he said Microsoft received 14 lawful orders seeking content about terrorist suspects who were at large in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks last year. "In all 14 of those cases, we were able to respond, determine that the orders were lawful and pull the content," Smith said. "And we did that in an average response time [of] under 30 minutes."

But Smith criticized the U.S. government for attempting to circumvent the rule of law, specifically citing Microsoft's ongoing legal battle with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding emails contained in a Microsoft data center in Ireland. Microsoft challenged a DOJ warrant to turn over the emails, arguing that the information resides in Ireland, and U.S. law enforcement should go through proper legal channels in that country to obtain the emails.

"We believe emphatically that when the government wants to investigate a legitimate business, and it wants information that belongs to that business, then it should go to that business and serve a warrant or subpoena on the business, and not go to the cloud services provider instead," Smith said. "This is the way the law and law enforcement has worked in our country for over two centuries. Cloud computing should not change that balance."

Call for strong encryption

Despite the best of intentions, one thing is clear: The path to hell starts at the backdoor.
Brad Smithpresident and chief legal officer, Microsoft

Smith was also emphatic in his opposition to the FBI's "going dark" campaign, as well as government efforts to weaken encryption. "Despite the best of intentions, one thing is clear: The path to hell starts at the backdoor. And we need to make sure that encryption technology remains strong," Smith said, which received widespread applause from the audience.

Smith called on the audience to support and protect strong encryption technology, arguing that efforts to weaken or undermine the technology will have a devastating effect on the public's trust in the infosec industry.

"We need every day, I believe, to keep in mind that when it comes to security, there is no technology that is more important than encryption. That's why we need to stand up, be thoughtful and also be vocal," Smith said. "More so than ever before, one thing is clear above all else: People will not use technology they do not trust, and hence, trust is the absolute foundation of our entire industry."

To that end, Smith said he supported the recently announced encryption commission proposed by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Rep. Michael McCaul to have an open discussion about cybersecurity and law enforcement challenges. But Smith also said U.S. laws are woefully behind the times and must be updated to address 21st Century technology.

"We need a world where technology is governed by the rule of law, and not simply the laws of physics. We need good laws," Smith said. "We need to engage in public debate, because the world will trust technology only if the law can catch up."

Next Steps

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