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Petraeus slams encryption backdoors, supports Apple

Speaking at the Cloud Identity Summit, Gen. David H. Petraeus blasted the FBI's recent efforts to compel Apple to break the company's own encryption protection.

NEW ORLEANS -- Gen. David H. Petraeus had harsh words for the FBI's effort to force encryption backdoors on private technology companies such as Apple.

Petraeus, a retired four-star general and former director of the CIA and now chairman of the KKR Global Institute, spoke at the 2016 Cloud Identity Summit Wednesday on the topic of global security threats. During a question-and-answer session with Ping Identity Chairman and CEO Andre Durand, Petraeus discussed the topic of encryption and rebuked the efforts by the FBI and legislators to compel private technology companies to install encryption backdoors into their products and services.

"First, I strongly believe that the U.S. government and the organizations in it, particularly intelligence and law enforcement communities, appropriately and legally ought to have the ability to crack anything," Petraeus said. "It may take some effort, you can do it quietly, you don't have to broadcast it, you don't have to pound your chest and you don't make it a hill to die for. But you should have that capability, and I believe that's doable, by the way. I know what our organizations can do, especially, frankly, if we partner with the right civilian partners from time to time.

"But second, I don't believe the government should be able to compel a firm to have a backdoor so that governments can penetrate the encryption," Petraeus said, eliciting applause from the audience.

Petraeus also offered support for Apple regarding the company's recent legal battle with the FBI over gaining access to the iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook, saying the last thing the U.S. government should want to do is "undermine the ability of [Apple] to remain preeminent" as the world's biggest technology company.

I don't believe the government should be able to compel a firm to have a backdoor so that governments can penetrate the encryption.
Gen. David H. Petraeus

"I have to think, and in fact I've been told, that those that are in the business have questioned why this was made a hill to die for by the FBI, which then makes it a hill to die for by Apple, when you could probably have just had some quiet conversations," he said.

But Petraeus also laid part of the blame for the friction between private technology companies and the U.S. government at the feet of Edward Snowden. He said the landscape is different than it was before the Snowden revelations, and that the leaks did "enormous damage" not only to intelligence efforts but also to the relationships with the technology industry. 

"Frankly, these [companies] are patriots just like everybody else. It used to be that we would quietly go to them and say we have a really serious problem here, lay it out and say we need your help, and we would generally get help," he said. "That's not the case now because firms like Google lost tens of millions of dollars because of the ramifications of the Snowden leaks."

Petraeus said that the Snowden revelations led to the internet becoming more "balkanized" by data sovereignty laws and regulations and also damaged bilateral relationships and intelligence sharing with other governments. "I think there has to be a rebuilding of the relationships, a rebuilding of the bridges, and there has to be trust on both sides," he said, adding that public battles over encryption backdoors are harmful to those efforts.

As for end-to-end encryption, Petraeus said he wasn't concerned about efforts from Apple and other companies to further strengthen encryption. "My experience has been that anything is crackable at the end of the day," he said. "There's no question that we need to have law enforcement, legally and in accordance with the law, be capable of having access to certain encrypted communications."

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