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The Justice Department's latest arguments against encryption, presented at a summit in Washington Friday, focus on child predators and take aim at only certain kinds of data.

Why it matters: This isn't the first salvo in the encryption debate — it wasn't even the first last week — but it does show how Attorney General William Barr plans to make the case for "back doors" in encryption, a case law enforcement agencies have tried and failed to win since the 1990s.

Driving the news: Law enforcement officials have long argued that when tech firms use secure encryption methods, police and intelligence agencies can't access potential evidence even when they have a warrant.

  • Cryptographers and security experts note that there's no way to weaken encryption for the FBI without weakening it for everyone else — including hackers, thieves and foreign spies.

The arguments made at the Friday summit offer some new twists to the debate.

Child exploitation is the new terrorism: Under former FBI Director James Comey, the last DOJ official in charge of making the case against encryption, the main argument was that encryption enabled terrorism. Friday's summit shifted the argument to child predators.

  • Multiple officials noted that 90% of submissions to a child exploitation tip line, used by tech companies to notify authorities of misuse of their platforms, came from Facebook. If Facebook began to use strong encryption practices, authorities would lose some of that visibility.

Changing the debate: Barr is explicitly narrowing his case for limiting encryption to chat apps and data at rest (i.e. data sitting on a hard drive). But encryption is also important for "data in transit" — it's what prevents eavesdroppers from capturing banking or e-commerce transactions.

  • Focusing on data at rest and messages is an implicit admission by the government that implementing workarounds to encryption is inherently dangerous — and not needed when there's an alternative, like sending a warrant to a bank or retailer.
  • Risk management is a more mature way to view the encryption debate than the overconfident approach the DOJ has taken in the past. Officials have previously argued that weakening encryption brings no additional risk — FBI Director Christopher Wray made that argument at the summit — but no recognized expert is known to agree with that assertion.

Go deeper

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker
Updated 5 hours ago - Economy & Business

Janet Yellen co-opts Reaganomics phrase for new Davos speech

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen at a speech this week. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The U.S. needs to focus on increasing its productive potential, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told world leaders Friday, calling for what she terms "modern supply side economics."

Why it matters: She co-opted a phrase traditionally used by political conservatives to describe low-tax and deregulatory policies — and framed the Biden administration's initiatives as the best path forward to achieve greater national prosperity.