The former head of the NSA openly disagrees with the FBI's position on encryption

Michael Hayden, the former head of the NSA, has publicly disagreed with the current heads of the FBI and the NSA on encryption.

At a cybersecurity panel in New York on Tuesday attended by Motherboard’s Lorenzo Francheschi-Bicchierai, Hayden said that America “[is] better served by stronger encryption, rather than weaker encryption.”

Debate has been raging in Washington D.C. (and elsewhere in the world) for months about encryption technology. It’s a way of securing communications, sensitive material or other data in such a way that it cannot be decrypted or understood without the correct key or password. “Strong encryption” typically refers to encryption tech that cannot be accessed by anyone without a valid key, including the software manufacturer or the government: There is no “back door” in case of emergency.

In the wake of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance, big tech companies like Apple and Google began to introduce strong encryption to their products. The iPhone is now encrypted by default (it’s optional on Android smartphones), and iMessages are also encrypted and cannot be decrypted by Apple, even if supplied with a valid court order.

This popularisation of the technology has pitted tech companies and security experts against the authorities. Police and security services fear that it means vast swathes of information and potential evidence they previously had access to are “going dark.”

Privacy activists counter the tech is necessary to properly secure devices, and any back door in software is open to abuse by hackers and criminals.

The current FBI chief, James Comey, is a frequent critic of strong encryption. In an op-ed published in July 2015, he claimed encryption is helping terrorists, and also that month poo-poo-ed scientists who argue his proposals for an unexploitable back door aren’t possible. “A whole lot of good people have said it’s too hard … maybe that’s so,” he told a Senate hearing. “But my reaction to that is: I’m not sure they have really tried.”

Comey is joined by Mike Rogers, the director of the NSA. Rogers has previously said that he “shares [FBI] Director [James] Comey’s concern[s].”

Hayden, who served as director of the NSA from 2006 to 2009, apparently does not. He said on Tuesday that “American security might be best secured by toeing more in the direction of giving up the offensive advantage, in order to more secure American communications.” And speaking to Francheschi-Bicchierai afterwards, he said that he “would not support [FBI] Director [James] Comey’s demands for access.”

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