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Tech sector won battle over encryption: Official

A high-ranking cybersecurity official who has just left the Obama administration says the battle between the government and the tech sector over encryption is already over, and the tech sector won.

Ari Schwartz in 2011.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Ari Schwartz in 2011.

Ari Schwartz was the Obama White House's senior director for cybersecurity until the end of September, and he is starting a new job with the law firm Venable as managing director of cybersecurity services on Monday.

In an interview with CNBC, he shared his thoughts on the debate over a U.S. tech sector that, largely in response to the Edward Snowden revelations, has begun selling nearly unbreakable encryption to its customers. American law enforcement and intelligence officials, led by FBI Director James Comey, have argued that such encryption means many valuable leads will "go dark" for investigators trying to solve crimes and prevent terrorism.

But Schwartz said law enforcement can't win the debate.

"Stronger encryption is inevitable," he said. "Law enforcement is going to have to learn to work in that environment."

Schwartz said the U.S. government will not be able to prevent companies from developing more powerful encryption or marketing it around the world.

"Tech companies are going to have encryption and sell it," he said. "It's yet to be seen what the response to that is from law enforcement and the government." In effect, he said, the cat is out of the bag: "There's no path to removing these tools from the marketplace."

Schwartz said the White House first considered him for a job just as the Edward Snowden scandal was breaking in 2013. "Then the Snowden thing hit, and I thought, 'Yeah, that job will be interesting.' " He was promoted to senior director for cyber security in March of this year.

As for Snowden himself, Schwartz said the NSA whistleblower should return to the United States to serve jail time. "If this is a case of civil disobedience," Schwartz said, "He needs to serve jail time."

"You have to pay the price for the crime if you believe you did the right thing."


Instead, Schwartz said, Snowden remains in Russia continuing to criticize the United States, but remaining largely mum on Russia's own cybersurveillance activities. "The longer he continues to stay in Russia and not say anything about their surveillance, I think it raises questions about the morality of what he's saying in the long term."

Schwartz said he sees Snowden as a whistleblower, albeit one who does not want to suffer the consequences of his actions. "I think he had moral reasons for doing what he wanted to do," Schwartz said. "I would not have done what he did. But what's his stance on Russian surveillance? He's not willing to face justice no matter where he is. That's not civil disobedience."


At Venable, Schwartz, who is not an attorney, will work with companies looking to solve their cybersecurity problems, although he and a spokesperson for the firm declined to provide the names of the clients. He will also work on building a coalition of companies — tech and others — to focus on cybersecurity and law.

Venable also said Schwartz will assist companies in implementing the White House's Cybersecurity Framework. Venable said Schwartz earlier in his career was a senior policy advisor for the Commerce Department as well as senior Internet policy advisor at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He was also chief operating officer for the Center for Democracy & Technology.