Microsoft CEO says encryption backdoors are a ‘terrible idea’

As Apple squares off for another encryption fight, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella offered mixed messages on the encryption question. In a Monday meeting with reporters in New York, Nadella reiterated the company’s opposition to encryption backdoors, but expressed tentative support for legal and technical solutions in the future.

“I do think backdoors are a terrible idea, that is not the way to go about this,” Nadella said. “We’ve always said we care about these two things: privacy and public safety. We need some legal and technical solution in our democracy to have both of those be priorities.”

Along those lines, Nadella expressed support for key escrow systems, versions of which have been proposed by researchers in the past.

Apple’s device encryption systems first became a point of controversy after a 2016 shooting in San Bernardino, which led to a heated legal push to force Apple to unlock the phone. That fight ultimately ended in a stalemate, but many have seen the recent shooting at a naval base in Pensacola as a potential place to restart the fight. Committed by a Saudi national undergoing flight training with the US Navy, the shooting has already been labeled a terrorist act by the FBI, and resulted in 21 other Saudi trainees being disenrolled from the program. Two phones linked to the assailant are still subject to Apple’s device encryption, and remain inaccessible to investigators.

But Nadella stopped short of simply saying companies could never provide data under such circumstances, or that Apple shouldn’t provide a jailbroken iOS modification under the circumstances. “We can’t take hard positions on all sides… [but if they’re] asking me for a backdoor, I’ll say no.” Nadella continued, “My hope is that in our democracy these are the things that arrive at legislative solutions.”

That’s a significantly milder tone than Microsoft took during the San Bernardino case in 2016. At the time, Microsoft expressed “wholehearted” support for Apple’s position in the case, and joined Apple in opposing some of the encryption bills pushed in the wake of the trial.

Correction 9:43PM ET: Due to a transcription error, Nadella’s two priorities were listed as privacy and national security. He said they were privacy and public safety. This has been corrected.