Top federal officials convened in Silicon Valley on Wednesday to discuss the rise of cyber attacks and to keep abreast of the latest technology trends.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, spoke at the campus of Intel’s security arm in an effort to improve relations between technology companies and the federal government.
The recent legal drama between the Justice Department and Apple over unlocking an iPhone used during the San Bernardino terrorist attacks late last year soured the relationship between the government and large part of the technology industry. Intel (INTC), Microsoft (MSFT), and Facebook (FB) sided with Apple (AAPL) against the FBI’s effort to retrieve data stored on the disputed iPhone by compelling Apple to create custom software that could circumvent the phone’s security and encryption features.
These companies believed the Apple DOJ case could have set a legal precedent that would require technology companies to aid the government in the future, ultimately undermining their own products’ security features. Although the FBI said it was eventually able to crack the iPhone without the help of Apple and no longer required its assistance, the looming issue of encryption technology and whether the government could someday bring a similar case to other businesses still exits.
When asked about the issue of encryption, the three cabinet members all agreed that strong encryption is necessary to protect sensitive data and therefore national security.
“Our entire economy rests on the back of our digital infrastructure,” Pritzker said about the need for encryption. However, she added that there must be a way that “businesses, as they are creating strong encryption, can respond when there are law enforcement challenges.”
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Both Carter and Johnson agreed with Pritzker’s comments, and Johnson added “with strong encryption it becomes harder to detect criminal activity.”
The officials’ arguments are sure to upset some technology companies that feel the government sides with law enforcement on the need for so-called back doors in encryption. Still, Carter stressed that the growing threat of hacking by nation states and criminal organizations require both the public and private sector to work with each other and share relevant data that could be used to prevent cyber attacks.
Pritzker said the government has built a better relationship with the technology community and that it is “dramatically different” from when she first started her cabinet position in 2013. The technology industry may not feel so warmly, however.
Carter acknowledged that when compared to the private sector, the federal government can be slow. The government is “trying to create more innovative and rapid ways” to better partner and invest in companies on cybersecurity initiatives, he said.
“We have to move fast,” Carter said about countering hackers.
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And while the government may be looking to partner with technology companies, Johnson pointed out that the government is competing with the business sector to recruit talent. Hiring cybersecurity experts is a big challenge for the federal government, Johnson said, which has trouble competing on salaries, perks, and the prestige of working at high-profile companies.
“We need good cyber talent,” said Johnson. “That is the No. 1 thing I think of.”