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White House Seeks Silicon Valley Help on Strong Yet Breakable Encryption

The Obama administration hopes Silicon Valley technologists can think of a system with strong encryption that could be pierced legally by one party without opening the door to others, a government official said on Tuesday. White House cybersecurity policy coordinator Michael Daniel said at the annual RSA Conference on security that he is trying to set starting principles for a broad public discussion on the issue, which has been a major source of tension with technology companies and other cyber experts. A panel of experts convened by the administration following leaks by former U.S. intelligence agency contractor Edward Snowden called on the government to promote strong encryption and stop trying to subvert it by surreptitious means, arguing that U.S. companies would bring in less revenue overseas if privacy protections were suspect. But the White House has yet to adopt that stand, and senior intelligence officials including FBI Director James Comey have faulted Apple and Google for ramping up encryption post-Snowden.

In a meeting with a handful of reporters, Daniel was asked whether he could name a respected technology figure who believed it possible to have strong encryption that could be circumvented by just one party's legal authority. "I don't have any off the top my head," Daniel said, but added that if any place could come up with an answer, it would be the "enormously creative" Silicon Valley.

In a separate speech Tuesday at the RSA Conference, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced plans to open a satellite cybersecurity office in Silicon Valley. He also urged tech companies to ease up on the move toward deeper encryption. "I understand the importance of what encryption brings to privacy. But, imagine the problems if, well after the advent of the telephone, the warrant authority of the government to investigate crime had extended only to the U.S. mail," Johnson said. "Our inability to access encrypted information poses public safety challenges."

Comey: Encryption 'Is Like a Closet That Can't Be Opened' 2:29

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— Reuters and NBC News staff