Microsoft's top lawyer defends encryption and Apple

brad smith crop
Credit: Microsoft

Argues people can't be kept safe in the real world if they aren't safe online.

Microsoft's top lawyer delivered a very powerful keynote speech at the recent RSA 2016 security conference on online security and the need for encryption, transparency and trust, while also offering a full throated defense of Apple in its fight with the FBI.

Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer, spent much of his 30-minute speech (YouTube video) emphasizing the importance of encryption and strong cyber-security practices because the digital world has become interconnected with the real world.

"The Internet started out two decades ago as something people talked about as a different space, cyberspace, as if it was disconnected from real space and the real world," he said. "But what we have learned today is if they want to shape and impact what happens in the real world they go to the Internet, whether it's to recruit people or espouse their views or to investigate crimes, to learn to study, you name it, the real world now often starts with what happens on the Internet."

And because of this, cyber-security is national security, as evidenced by the massive breach at Target and the Sony Pictures hack. "There is no such thing as national security in this decade without cyber-security," Smith said. "We cannot keep people safe in the real world if we do not keep people safe on the Internet."

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And when it comes to security, there is no technology that is more important than encryption, he added. "We need to ensure encryption technology remains strong."

Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer

That's not to say Microsoft won't help when asked by law enforcement. After the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, France, Microsoft received 14 lawful orders seeking content about suspects at large. In all 14 cases, he said, Microsoft responded, determined the orders were lawful, pulled content and turned it over and with a response time of under 30 minutes.

But that was Microsoft working with law enforcement. He objected to the FBI's actions against Apple to force Apple to break the encryption of an iPhone owned by one of the two suspects in the Dec. 14 massacre in San Bernardino, Calif. Apple is under a court order to break the encryption of the suspect's iPhone, something CEO Tim Cook is fighting.

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"When it comes to security, there is no technology as important as encryption," said Smith. "Despite the best of intentions, one thing is clear: The path to hell starts at the backdoor. We need to make sure encryption technology remains strong." That's why Microsoft is siding with Apple in this fight.

So Microsoft has realized that it needs to keep information secure, especially on the heels of a 2014 unanimous Supreme Court decision that the contents of a smartphone or any computing device today "contain the privacies of life," as he put it. The case, Riley v California, said police must obtain warrants before searching the digital contents of cellphones taken from people who are placed under arrest.

"More so than ever before, one thing is clear above all else. People will not use technology they do not trust, and hence trust is the absolutely the foundation of our entire industry and needs to stay that way," said Smith.

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