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Amazon CEO Jeffrey Bezos: Debate between privacy and security is ‘issue of our age’

(Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Amazon chief executive Jeffrey Bezos said Wednesday his company is wholly aligned with Apple in its fight against government investigators who asked Apple to break its own encryption programs so they could gain access the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorists.

Bezos said his company is also embracing that kind of technology that would make it difficult for government officials to gain access to any personal information on its devices — even when those authorities have a warrant. Such measures prevent device-makers from accessing their own customers' data. Amazon's most popular devices include its Kindle readers and tablets, as well as the voice-controlled speaker called the Echo.

The conflict between privacy and national security is an "issue of our age" that requires greater debate, he said.

"It needs to be looked at by the highest courts, by citizens and by lawmakers," said Bezos, the owner of The Washington Post, told the newspaper's executive editor, Martin Baron. The interview was part of an event on innovation called "Transformers" at The Post's headquarters.

Earlier this year, Apple fought an FBI order that ordered the company to write software to unlock an iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook — who with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people and injured 22 in San Bernardino in December 2015. The company resisted that request, saying it would irrevocably damage its ability to ensure the privacy of its customers.

The ensuing debate drove a wedge between Silicon Valley and Washington, as the tech industry, already wary of government surveillance, rushed to rally behind Apple.

Amazon joined Microsoft, Google and a dozen other tech firms when it filed a legal brief supporting Apple's position in March.  "[The] government's order to Apple exceeds the bounds of existing law and, when applied more broadly, will harm Americans' security in the long run," the filing said.

On Thursday, Bezos said, the issue should be decided by the highest courts in the land or a new law passed by Congress.

"We are totally like-minded with Apple on that issue," he said.

But Bezos said he was not overly concerned that the U.S. government would pass laws to compel companies to turn over information to law enforcement because of public opinion. When it comes to foreign governments ordering companies to hand over personal data, he said, "all bets are off."

With its forays into the smart appliance world, particularly with its voice-activated Echo speaker, Amazon's own data collection could potentially provide useful information for law enforcement. The device is always listening for its trigger word — "Alexa," in this case.

Bezos encouraged people to reverse engineer Amazon's devices to ensure that the company is adhering to its own privacy policies, which promises not to violate users' privacy and not use that information for advertising or surveillance. But he also said that he doesn't yet have an answer to how firms can create connected technologies that aren't vulnerable to hacking.

So, Baron asked, is it possible for a connected society to ever be fully secure?

"I don't know the answer to that," Bezos said. "The technical capability is there to turn any phone into a listening device surreptitiously. "

Bezos said the company "works very hard" at trying to make the company's processes secure against nation-state and other hackers.

Yet Amazon itself has faced questions about its decisions regarding encryption and its commitment to consumer privacy. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden once called the firm "morally irresponsible" for not routinely encrypting shopper's browsing information on its website. The company faced criticism in March after security researchers noticed it had quietly removed encryption from its Fire operating system for its tablets and other smart devices. Amazon later reversed its decision.

Tech that hangs on your every word raises privacy questions

Last week, Gizmodo reported that it filed a Freedom of Information request with the FBI specifically asking if the agency had ever wiretapped Amazon's smart speaker for wiretapping purposes.

The answer? "[The] FBI neither confirms nor denies the existence of any records," the agency's response said.