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Defense Secretary Says He Is For Encryption And Against Back Doors

March 3, 2016, 2:16 AM UTC
Official portrait of  Ashton B. Carter
HANDOUT - Ashton B. Carter is the United States Deputy Secretary of Defense. Mandatory Credit: Monica A. King / DoD via CNP Photo by: Monica A. King/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Photograph by Monica A. King Monica A. King — picture-alliance/dpa/AP

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter called for peace between Silicon Valley and the federal government amid a legal battle between Apple and the Justice Department over a locked iPhone used during the San Bernardino shootings.

“The only way we are going to get a good solution is by working together,” Carter told the audience at the RSA cybersecurity conference in San Francisco on Wednesday. “To work our ways through our problems.”

Carter declined to comment directly about the iPhone fight because it does not involve the Pentagon, calling it a “law enforcement and litigation” matter. The Justice Department wants Apple (AAPL) to build custom software that would sidestep the company’s tough security and encryption features so law enforcement can more easily access data on the disputed iPhone.

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The fight has become a lightening rod over encryption, with tech companies saying any attempt to weaken security opens the door to hackers and government espionage. The Justice Department, in contrast, says national security depends on the ability of law enforcement to conduct investigations.

In his talk, Carter noted that the Defense Department is a big advocate of encryption technology. He called it “absolutely essential” for the department’s operations.

“We are squarely behind strong data security and strong encryption, no question about it,” said Carter.

He also said that he’s “not a believer in back doors,” the technical loopholes that companies could embed in their products that would give law enforcement covert access to personal data. Many tech companies are resisting the idea.

The defense secretary also said, without citing the Apple and DOJ case, that he doesn’t believe “we ought to let one case drive a general conclusion or solution.” He raised concerns about the potential for hastily written laws in light of the Apple-DOJ tussle that may be developed by people with a limited understanding of technology “in an atmosphere of anger or grief.”

Carter also discussed the recruitment of Alphabet (GOOG) executive chairman Eric Schmidt to lead its Defense Innovation Advisory Board, designed to speed up government adoption of new technologies. Schmidt will be given “substantial latitude” to appoint more people to the board.

Part of Schmidt’s duties will involve traveling around the world to military bases to meet commanders and “tell us how to do better” when it comes to technology, Carter said.

Carter mentioned that the government is already adopting some Silicon Valley practices like its recently announced bug bounty program in which the government offers rewards to altruistic hackers who can crack into the Pentagon’s computer systems. Many technology companies like Facebook (FB) and Google have similar programs under the theory that it’s better to be hacked by a trusted party as a preventative measure rather than being unknowingly breached by criminals.

“I’m not doing it for fun,” said Carter. “I’m doing it for utility.”

For more on Apple and the DOJ, check out our video:

And of course, Carter used his appearance at the security conference to recruit Silicon Valley workers who may have more technical know-how than the average government employee. One of the examples he cited was the recently announced Digital Defense Service, a sort of Defense Department job shadowing project in which technology workers can team up with the government on projects that could last up to two years.

He said there are “no strings attached” and people don’t have to become government workers.

“That is an example of a people bridge,” said Carter. “The idea there is to get some of our people familiar with not just the technology but the culture.”