Former NSA Chief Michael Hayden Sides With Apple, Though Admits ‘No Encryption Is Unbreakable’

An attendee demonstrates the new Apple Inc. iPhone 6 Plus after a product announcement at Flint Center in Cupertino, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014. Apple Inc. unveiled redesigned iPhones with bigger screens, overhauling its top-selling product in an event that gives the clearest sign yet of the company’s product direction under Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook.
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Tim Cook‘s opinion that Apple should not develop a way to hack into the encrypted phone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters has earned an endorsement from an unlikely source, though it comes with a big “but.” Michael Hayden, the former NSA director and CIA chief — so, a bonafide spy guy, told the Wall Street Journal that America is “more secure with unbreakable end-to-end encryption,” calling it a “slam dunk” if you view it in the scope of the “broad health” of the United States.

Hayden said FBI director James Comey‘s demand for Apple to give them a tool to break into Syed Farook’s iPhone is “based on the belief that he remains the main body, and that you should accommodate your movements to the movements of him, which is the main body. I’m telling you, with regards to the cyber domain, he’s not — you are.”

Now for that “but,” which will surely disappoint all the (temporarily pleased) civil libertarians out there. Hayden said that following a setback in the mid-nineties, when the NSA failed to convince manufacturers to adopt a cryptographic device called the Clipper chip, “we then began the greatest 15 years in electronic surveillance.” The controversial chipset was an encryption device that had a built-in backdoor in case the government needed to take a lookie-loo. But, as Hayden notes, “we figured out ways to get around the quote-unquote unbreakable encryption. Number one, no encryption is unbreakable. It just takes more computing power. Number two, the way we worked around encryption is bulk collection and metadata.”

Watch the conversation:

Since 2014, Apple’s iPhones have had built-in encryption that makes it so the contents of a device can only be accessed via a phone’s passcode. The FBI’s order stipulates that Apple provide software to work only on the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. Cook said in an open letter that the U.S. government order would undermine encryption and potentially create a “master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks” on private devices.

Cook wrote that “in the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession… The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a back door. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”

On Wednesday, Cook’s position received support from a high-profile colleague in tech.

“Forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users’ privacy,” wrote Google CEO Sundar Pichai in a series of Twitter posts. “We know that law enforcement and intelligence agencies face significant challenges in protecting the public against crime and terrorism. We build secure products to keep your information safe and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders. But that’s wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent. Looking forward to a thoughtful and open discussion on this important issue.”


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