A petition calling for President Obama to support strong encryption and "reject any law, policy or mandate" that would undermine digital security reached 100,000 signatures Tuesday, the level at which the White House has said it will respond.
The petition was organized by privacy activists at Access Now and the Electronic Frontier Foundation and endorsed by more than 50 groups and companies, including tech heavy hitters, such as Google and Microsoft. The action relied on the "We the People" platform, a public engagement tool from the White House that promises to respond to petitions that reach a certain number of signatures -- right now that's 100,000.
The campaign came in the midst of a long-running debate over whether the government should force tech companies to maintain a way to unlock customer devices and data secured by encryption. In recent years, some tech companies, particularly Apple, have expanded some of their encryption so that it's so secure that even the company itself cannot unlock it if served with a warrant. Law enforcement officers have warned that this could inhibit their ability to investigate crimes or terrorism and have suggested that companies build in ways to unlock data for them.
Such access is commonly referred to as a "back door," and most security experts agree that inserting one into encryption fundamentally weakens the security of a system by adding unnecessary complexity and creating a target for malicious hackers.
Obama has said he's a "strong believer in strong encryption" in the past, but it's not clear that the government and privacy activists define strong encryption the same way. In fact, some officials have declared the type of protections offered by Apple and others not "strong encryption," but "warrant-proof encryption."
The administration is believed to have come to a decision about encryption and has said it will not seek legislation on the issue for now, but it has not publicly described a full policy position.
Now that the petition has passed 100,000 signatures, the administration faces a ticking clock to respond. In the past, some We the People petitions that met the response threshold were left languishing unanswered -- for instance, a petition calling for Obama to pardon Edward Snowden went unanswered for two years. The administration eventually rejected that petition last summer at the same time the White House cleared out its backlog and committed to responding to successful petitions with an update or policy statement "within 60 days wherever possible."
National Security Council spokesperson Mark Stroh said the administration is aware of the encryption petition and preparing a formal response.
"The United States will work to ensure that malicious actors can be held to account – without weakening our commitment to strong encryption," Stroh said in a statement. "As part of those efforts, we are actively engaged with private companies to ensure they understand the public safety and national security risks that result from malicious actors’ use of their encrypted products and services. However, the Administration is not seeking legislation at this time."
But activists are eager to hear more about the administration's position on encryption, which they say could have international repercussions.
“Every day that President Obama waits to defend strong encryption is a day that he’s sending a signal that it’s okay to undermine the privacy, security, and trust of internet users. And it’s not just the FBI or the NSA that are listening. Other governments -- from China to India to the United Kingdom -- are also receiving this damaging message,” said Nathan White, senior legislative manager at Access Now, in a statement about the petition reaching the response threshold.