×

Clinton camp asked Apple, Google for opinion of Clinton encryption comments

On Dec. 21, 2015, a Hillary Clinton aide named Sara Solow let her colleagues on the campaign know she had some good news: Executives at Apple and Google were reacting favorably to Clinton's comments on encryption at a Democratic primary debate.

In stolen emails obtained and released by WikiLeaks, Solow passed along a message she had received from an executive at Apple. "From my contact Nick at Apple," she wrote. "Looks good. Just heard that Google is good too."

"Nick" is likely Nick Ammann, director of global government operations at Apple. Solow passed on an email from Nick that appears to show his response to an earlier note from Solow, which is not included in the chain. "Hi, Sara," he wrote. "Thanks! Yes, this was great. I got the clip to Tim last night." That is an apparent reference to Apple CEO Tim Cook. Nick said Clinton's encryption comments were appropriate: "Definitely struck the right tone," he wrote.

Taken together, the emails seem to suggest that the Clinton campaign was seeking the approval of Apple and Google as it rolled out Clinton's position on encryption, and that Apple approved of her statements. And it gives a sense of the degree of influence and access the Silicon Valley companies have with the Clinton campaign. The email exchange came just weeks after the San Bernardino, California, attacks, but before Apple's fight with the FBI over access to the locked iPhone of one of the killers burst into public view in early 2016.

A woman holds a mobile phone with a case featuring a picture of Hillary Clinton, as she listens to her speak at a rally in Las Vegas, Nevada, October 12, 2016.
Lucy Nicholson | Reuters
A woman holds a mobile phone with a case featuring a picture of Hillary Clinton, as she listens to her speak at a rally in Las Vegas, Nevada, October 12, 2016.

An Apple spokesman declined to comment on the exchange. Neither the Clinton campaign nor spokespeople for Google responded to requests for comment.

The Clinton campaign has not confirmed that the emails released by WikiLeaks are legitimate documents, and CNBC cannot independently authenticate the emails.

In the debate that Solow and the Apple executive discussed, Clinton expressly referenced the tech company when asked about encryption. "Maybe the back door is the wrong door, and I understand what Apple and others are saying about that," Clinton said. She added, "I just think there's got to be a way, and I would hope that our tech companies would work with government to figure that out. Otherwise, law enforcement is blind — blind before, blind during, and, unfortunately, in many instances, blind after."

Solow sent an email to other Clinton staffers the next morning analyzing Clinton's comments on the issue, and asking for their input. Her comments indicate that there may have been some anxiety in the Clinton camp about how Clinton's statements would be received.

"She basically said no mandatory back doors last night," Solow wrote. "In the next paragraph she then said some not-so-great stuff — about there having to be 'some way' to 'break into' encrypted content — but then she again said 'a backdoor may be the wrong door.' Please let us know what you hear from your folks. I would think they would be happy — she's certainly NOT calling for the backdoor now — although she does then appear to believe there is 'some way' to do the impossible."

The WikiLeaks documents also show other discussions within Democratic circles about encryption. Apple's dispute with the FBI became public in early 2016, and on Feb, 16, a federal magistrate judge ordered Apple to help the FBI unlock the San Bernardino shooter's phone.

The next day, according to the documents, an email appears to be from the personal account of Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat representing part of Silicon Valley, to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.

"Dear John," she wrote. "I hope that our candidate does not leap on the side of the FBI on the encryption ruling. If she is leaning that way, can I talk to her?" Podesta responded that the Clinton team was "inclined to stay out of this."

Lofgren's office did not respond to a request for comment.