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Tech Roundup: Social Media, User Data And Law Enforcement

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Some dramatic developments this week in technology news. Twitter sued the U.S. government. Apple and the FBI got into a fight over encryption. And Snapchat appears to have been hacked. NPR's Steve Henn has been covering these stories this week. So Steve, you see a common theme here.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: You know, I do. I think the theme is that all of these stories touch on either encryption, security or free speech. They're tied together in kind of an interesting way. Right now, most big tech companies that are serious about making users' communication safe and private have embraced encryption - powerful encryption. And I don't think tech companies are doing this to make it impossible to comply with lawful requests and criminal investigations. I think the reason they want to do this is that when encryption is used properly it makes all of our communications more secure.

I mean, you mentioned Snapchat. Now, it's unclear that Snapchat was really hacked or whether or not this was a hoax. But hackers on 4chan claimed to have obtained tens of thousands of photos - explicit photos - possibly of minors through attacking a so-called third-party app. You know, this is the kind of thing that just strikes terror into the heart of tech executives and frankly their customers. And it's the type of attack that strong, well-implemented encryption can make a lot harder to pull off.

RATH: But you know, we've heard from law enforcement this week, from the FBI, that that kind of airtight encryption lets criminals - terrorists even - plot in secrecy. That there needs to be a backdoor for law enforcement to get around encryption in those cases.

HENN: Yeah, law enforcement has argued aggressively for these kinds of backdoors for years. But most security experts I've spoken to respond that if you build a backdoor into a service, it's not just law enforcement that can walk through, that other people often can exploit the same technologies to get at communications illegally. It just fundamentally makes these systems more insecure.

RATH: Well, how much are Apple, Twitter, any of these companies legally required to cooperate with law enforcement?

HENN: You know, this is a really complicated and evolving area of the law. And right now, honestly, there could be legal precedence in the national security space that we don't know about because those cases are litigated in the FISA court - the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court - and are classified.

But here are the basics. So obviously any company has to obey a valid court order and telephone services, you know. Remember voice calls? People in that business are required to install technology that makes it possible for law enforcement to intercept the calls and listen in.

They also have to do something to make it possible for law enforcement to know who is connecting with whom. That's called track and trace in this community. And the U.S. Patriot Act extended that requirement to Internet service providers and companies like Twitter.

But none of these laws require companies to decode any encrypted communications that are intercepted. And certainly, right now at least, these laws don't apply to mobile phones or personal devices that are sold directly to consumers. So if Apple and Google make this decision to encrypt everything on your phone, that's not illegal. And frankly, most legal experts I've talked to say really it's a matter of free speech. I mean, if you want to talk in code, you're legally allowed to talk in code.

RATH: Speaking of rights and free speech, that brings us to the Twitter case. Could you explain their free speech argument and the case they brought against the Justice Department this week?

HENN: So in the case of Twitter, the company's arguing it should be allowed to tell the public more about the kinds of legal requests for information it's receiving from the U.S. government.

RATH: What kind of requests are they talking about?

HENN: Well, they run the gamut - from routine subpoenas to national security letters and requests from this Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. And for years, technology companies were forbidden from disclosing that they had received NSLs or FISA court orders.

This year, many tech companies reached a compromise with the Justice Department that allows them to talk about this in broad strokes. Twitter is arguing that's not good enough. They say that simply disclosing the number and type of court orders they receive won't compromise investigations and really is their First Amendment right.

RATH: NPR's Steve Henn. Steve, thank you.

HENN: Oh, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.