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Billionaire Thiel Supports Encryption as U.S. Pushes for Access

Ben Brody

(Bloomberg) -- Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire and board member of Facebook Inc., pushed back against the U.S. government’s efforts to get technology companies to provide law enforcement access to encrypted communications.

The comments by Thiel, who is among the tech industry’s most vocal supporters of President Donald Trump, emerged Sunday amid revelations of an apparently separate FBI initiative to bolster monitoring of threats via social media.

“We should be supportive of encryption,” Thiel said in an interview on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures” when asked about the Federal Bureau of Investigation bid.

“If you deencrypt everything, maybe stuff goes back to our rivals in China,” Thiel said. “Maybe the FBI gets the information, maybe other people get it. I don’t trust the FBI to keep it protected inside the FBI.”

It’s a somewhat odd contention for Thiel, who co-founded data-analytics company Palantir Technologies Inc. The company works closely with police departments and U.S. government agencies, including the Defense Department, Homeland Security and the Internal Revenue Service.

In July, Attorney General William Barr issued a sharp warning that time may be running out for companies such as Facebook to come to a voluntary agreement with law enforcement over access to users’ messages. Privacy advocates have long insisted that so-called backdoors into encrypted messages would threaten political speech around the world and open communications to access by bad actors.

‘Less Privacy’

“The dogmatic backdoor to encryption that the FBI pushes is something I would disagree with,” Thiel said. Having impenetrable encryption could pose challenges for law enforcement, he said, but accommodating the U.S. demands “also can mean that you have less privacy.”

Thiel was asked about a recent FBI request for proposals from companies for tools that would allow the agency to monitor social media “in order to mitigate multifaceted threats.” But he spoke primarily about encryption that makes private messages readable only to sender and recipient, which has been the focus of years of tension between law enforcement and technology companies because of its use in an array of crimes.

The FBI bid doesn’t require the breaking of codes and is described as a “public records contract.”

FBI’s Bid

The FBI initiative, which was posted in July and was earlier reported by the Wall Street Journal, doesn’t mention Facebook in particular, but comes as the world’s largest social media site is under fire for its handling of users’ information. The pressure culminated in $5 billion settlement with the Federal Trade Commission last month that required the company to keep a tighter leash on its data.

Facebook’s posted policies say that it discloses account records in response to subpoenas and other valid legal processes, and it will work with law enforcement when it believes “there is a genuine risk of physical harm or direct threats to public safety.” It bans developers, however, from using its data “to provide tools that are used for surveillance.”

The FBI’s bid wants the bureau’s social-media monitors to get information about persons of interest including their emails, IP addresses, telephone numbers, social networks, group affiliations and likely aliases. The FBI also wants the ability to run batches of queries.

“It is an acknowledged fact that virtually every incident and subject of FBI investigative interest has a presence online,” the bid’s statement of objectives says. “The mission critical exploitation of social media enables the Bureau to proactively detect, disrupt, and investigate an ever growing diverse range of threats.”

Facebook, the FTC and the FBI didn’t immediately comment outside regular business hours. The FBI bid says its monitors must ensure “all privacy and civil liberties compliance requirements are met.”

Monitoring Social Media

Mass social-media monitoring is a common part of news-gathering, protecting corporate brands and even non-profit and government work. The privacy implications of such services have occasionally proven controversial, however, when used by law enforcement and intelligence. In 2016, Twitter Inc. cut off U.S. intelligence agencies from using an analytics service for surveillance, Dataminr.

Thiel’s company is also used by dozens of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to aggregate far-flung data, find patterns and present results in colorful, easy-to-interpret graphics. Its use by police in Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans and elsewhere has raised ethical concerns about the potential for unfairly targeting minorities.

Thiel also weighed in Sunday on the spat between Mitch McConnell and Twitter, which had locked the re-election account of the U.S. Senate majority leader for posting a video of protesters apparently threatening him last week outside his home in Louisville. Conservatives have contended that Alphabet Inc.’s Google is silencing them.

“One of the reasons the Republicans are so skeptical of the excuses Big Tech has for these repeated accidents is that the inside story is not good,” Thiel said. “On the inside, Twitter is not a company where you have lots of people writing checks to Senator McConnell.”

The site, which said Friday it had unlocked the account, bans the sharing of threats of violence, even against oneself.

During the Sunday interview on Fox, Thiel appeared to gesture to his other roles in Silicon Valley, saying that conflicts are rife in the sector.

“If we stop the conversation every time you say, ‘Well you’re involved in some other tech company,’ then we could never have this conversation,” Thiel said. “That’s just another way of shutting down debate.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Brody in Washington at btenerellabr@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sara Forden at sforden@bloomberg.net, Kevin Miller, Mark Niquette

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