WASHINGTON • As Apple's legal battle with the FBI over encryption heads towards a showdown, there appears little hope for a compromise that would placate both sides and avert a divisive court decision.
The FBI is pressing Apple to develop a system that would allow the law enforcement agency to break into a locked iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers, a demand the tech company claims would make all its devices vulnerable.
In an effort to end the deadlock, some US lawmakers are pushing for a panel of experts to study the issue of access to encrypted devices for law enforcement in order to find common ground.
Senator Mark Warner and Representative Mike McCaul have proposed the creation of a 16-member "National Commission on Security and Technology Challenges". But digital rights activists warn that the issue provides little middle ground - that once law enforcement gains a "back door", there would be no way to close it.
"We are concerned that the commission may focus on short-sighted solutions involving mandated or compelled back doors," said Mr Joseph Hall, chief technologist at the Centre for Democracy & Technology. "Make no mistake, there can be no compromise on back doors. Strong encryption makes anyone who has a cellphone or who uses the Internet far more secure."
The debate had been simmering years before the Apple-FBI row.
DANGER OF SHORT-SIGHTED MOVES
We are concerned that the commission may focus on short-sighted solutions involving mandated or compelled back doors. Make no mistake, there can be no compromise on back doors. Strong encryption makes anyone who has a cellphone or who uses the Internet far more secure.
MR JOSEPH HALL, chief technologist at the Centre for Democracy & Technology.
Last year, a panel led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists warned against "special access" for law enforcement, saying they pose "grave security risks" and "imperil innovation".
"I'm not sure there is much room for compromise from a technical perspective," said computer engineering professor Stephen Wicker of Cornell University, who specialises in mobile computing security.
A brief filed on behalf of law enforcement groups argued that Apple's encryption had prompted criminals to switch to the new iPhones as "the device of choice".
Mr Ed Black, president of the Computer & Communications Industry said the tech sector is largely united in this case because the FBI wants Apple to create weaker software or introduce "malware" to be able to crack the locked iPhone.
"On this narrow specific issue of 'can companies be compelled to create malware,' I think there may not be an answer," he said.
While access to encrypted apps and smartphones is difficult and traditional wiretaps don't work on new technology, "there are a lot of other tools for law enforcement", he said.
Mr Wicker said that to give law enforcement access, Congress could in theory mandate that devices use automatic cloud backups that could not be disabled. But that would constitute a dramatic departure from current views about privacy.
"From an individual rights standpoint," he said, "that would take away control by the user of their personal information."