Apple-FBI Debate Center Stage At 2016 RSA Conference

As a government hearing on that very issue was unfolding thousands of miles away, the encryption debate between Apple and the FBI took center stage at the 2016 RSA Conference in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Representatives from Apple and the FBI spoke before the House Judiciary Committee on the subject Tuesday in Washington, D.C., while every executive who took the stage for the security conference's Tuesday morning keynotes addressed the issue in some form, expressing their support for Apple and preserving the integrity of encryption technologies for the good of the industry overall.

Amit Yoran, president of San Francisco-based security specialist RSA, said policies to weaken encryption are "so misguided as to boggle the mind." Not only would those policies not better protect U.S. citizens from terrorists, Yoran said, but "you can sure bet that the bad guys will use that against us."

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[Related Video: RSA President On Apple-FBI Debate: We Cannot Weaken Encryption ]

"In an era where cybersecurity is consistently cited as the single greatest threat to our way of life, above terrorism and all else, how can we possibly justify a policy that would catastrophically weaken our infrastructures?" Yoran said.

Brad Smith, Microsoft president and chief legal officer, said companies like Microsoft are investing billions of dollars in improving their security posture, but they also have to stand up for customers and provide transparency on who can access their personal data and when.

"There is no technology more important than encryption," Smith said to rousing applause from thousands in the RSA audience. "That is why we need to stand up, be thoughtful and be vocal. … The path to hell starts at the back door, and we need to make sure that encryption technology remains strong."

Microsoft, Redmond, Wash., has said it plans to file an amicus brief to the court in support of Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple.

Chris Young, general manager of Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel Security, also briefly expressed his sentiments about the issue in his keynote address.

"Strong security is critical for our industry, and part of our responsibility is that we have to advocate and teach each other and balance that with our need for law enforcement," Young said.

Yoran added that it would also weaken U.S. economic interests on what he said was an "already suspicious world stage." Microsoft's Smith agreed with that, saying smartphones, in particular, contain very personal information and users will base product decisions around security.

"More so than ever before, one thing is clear above all else: People will not use technology they don't trust, and thus trust is the absolute foundation for our entire industry," Smith said. "It needs to remain that way."

The RSA Conference didn't leave out the other side of the debate. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch took the stage later in the day, urging cooperation between public and private sectors around national security issues. She emphasized how much the public sector has done to help private sector companies, calling out its threat intelligence sharing efforts, incident response assistance and help with arresting hackers in particular.

However, Lynch said recent pushes around "going dark" using encryption technologies throw a wrench in the relationship and make it challenging for law enforcement to protect national security interests. She said encryption does make people safer, but said this recent push by Apple flies in the face of the company's history of working with the government around law enforcement issues.

"This is a very real threat to law enforcement's mission to protect public safety and ensure criminals are caught and held accountable. … It's our vow to victims and the public and to all of you whose safety we must protect to ensure we have done everything under the law to intervene in terrorist threats and criminal activity on American soil," Lynch said.

"The [Department of Justice] will never sacrifice the liberties of the American people or the ideals that we cherish and make us who we are. As recent events have made clear, these stakes are not just theoretical. They bear directly on our public safety and national liberty," she said.

Lynch called for the security professionals in the audience to continue to innovate the technology, but to also keep an open line of communication and cooperation with the government around law enforcement needs. She asked the tech community to "talk, innovate and work with us," referring to the federal government.

However, Microsoft's Smith said this is "not about creating a world where tech is above the law." Smith said Microsoft has complied with 14 lawful orders in connection with the Paris terrorist attacks last fall, playing a role in law enforcement without compromising its technology.

"This is an issue that possesses timeless values that we need to move forward on. Public safety and privacy and freedom of expression are all values and principles that matter. … That balance should be struck not by those of us who are not elected, but by those of us who are," Smith said. "We need governments to strike that balance -- a well-informed balance."

Art Coviello, former executive chairman of RSA and current venture partner at Minnetonka, Minn.-based Rally Ventures, called for the security industry to educate the public sector. In drawing out the debate, Coviello said both public and private sectors stand to lose to hackers.

"We must understand that were all in this together. The digital world we're creating holds enormous potential for all of humanity and the issue of privacy and security is the defining issue of our time," Coviello said as he accepted the annual RSA Conference Lifetime Achievement Award. "Whether we solve for it or not will determine if we are its masters or its victims. In the end, I have confidence in all of you that we will be its masters."