Not even the US government knows which side to support in Apple vs. FBI

Commentary: The government wants its cake and to eat it, but can't decide on the cake.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

(Image: file photo)

Not everyone in government is happy about the FBI taking on Apple in the courts.

Reuters on Monday published a deep-dive looking at the rift across the Obama administration and the various government departments. The bottom line? Nobody is on the same page about whether tech companies should be forced to include "backdoors" into their products.

In case you need a refresher: the FBI brought a case against Apple to compel it to help its agents break into the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters, an attack that killed 14 people and injured dozens more.

Apple refused, arguing that it can't crack the encryption, and lodged a formal appeal.

It's a big deal that could make or break the US tech industry, and considerably alter the view of Silicon Valley to the outside world. The problem is that as an administration, you'd ideally want everyone on the same line of thinking.

Reuters reports a bigger rift between some agencies and others', one that's usually reserved for the bureaucrats in Congress:

"Federal justice officials argue that strong encryption makes it harder to track criminals, a central contention in the iPhone case. But officials in other departments - including Commerce, State and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy - counter that encryption is integral to protecting U.S. secrets and the technology industry. The issue has been discussed in meetings of the interagency National Security Council and elsewhere.

In other words, you can't have your cake and eat it, too.

The report also noted that "several key officials" in Homeland Security and the National Security Agency (NSA) "opposed the fight" based on the assumption that terrorists and criminals wouldn't trust US products and would seek alternative foreign-made encrypted products.

It's an interesting position particularly for the NSA, because it was revealed amid the Edward Snowden revelations that the spy agency had actively attacked Apple's products with implants and exploits.

The Obama administration hasn't come out in favor of the FBI's actions and the government won't seek legislation mandating backdoors in tech products, administration spokesperson Josh Earnest has offered support to the Justice Dept.

It's not unusual for the FBI or the Justice Dept. to take matters into its own hands independent of the White House's views.

But while the absence of any formal commentary from the president himself may look like not wanting to meddle in an ongoing legal challenge, to others' it looks like he doesn't have a position.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook reportedly told a delegation of tech executives and senior Obama administration staff -- including the president's counterterrorism chief and others -- that there "has been a lack of leadership in the White House" on the matter of encryption.

After months of debate, the court case landing in the public docket in mid-February was a de facto declaration of war by the FBI against an entire tech industry. You would think that a government -- regardless of its size -- would have handled its message a little better.

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