TechTank tracks Obama’s decision on encryption backdoors and Tesla’s autopilot feature

Here are some stories from this week’s news that TechTank staff have been following. To read analysis from Brookings fellows, you can follow the links to previous TechTank posts.

Obama administration will not seek law enforcement backdoor for encrypted phones 

In the debate over leaving backdoors for law enforcement agencies to access encrypted mobile devices, the Obama administration has sided with technology companies who argue that such backdoors would leave customers vulnerable to cyberattack.

Amid increasing fears about cybersecurity threats to smartphones, Apple has added stronger encryption to the iPhone operating system. Each phone now has a unique encryption key that prevents Apple from accessing data stored on the phone, even to comply with a court order.

FBI Director James Comey and other security officials have argued that backdoors are necessary for gathering the evidence needed to prosecute criminals.

In some cases, allowing access to security agencies is also undesirable. The European Court of Justice recently struck down a data sharing agreement with the U.S. in part because EU citizens’ data was not adequately protected from U.S. intelligence agencies.

Cybersecurity is a major issue for many technologies, from automobiles to electronic health records. Preventing such attacks could require companies and government institutions to stop storing sensitive data in central locations. For now, balancing cybersecurity with security in the physical world is an ongoing policy challenge.

Tesla releases autopilot software update for Model S cars

You might have noticed a few drivers in the past two days with only their fingertips touching the wheel. If they were driving a Tesla Model S, you needn’t have worried.

On October 14, 2015, Tesla released what may be one of the biggest software updates ever. It provides Model S cars made in and after October 2014 with Autopilot, which allows the vehicle “to steer within a lane, change lanes with the simple tap of a turn signal, and manage speed by using active, traffic-aware cruise control.”

It’s currently limited to primarily highway and freeway travel, and the system knows when the driver needs to take over or is not paying attention.

The driver is legally still responsible for the actions of the car and can override the Autopilot at any point. In 2014, “about two thirds of Americans were moderately concerned or very concerned about driving or riding in a vehicle with self-driving technology.”

Questions regarding liability for accidents when there truly is no driver and how autonomous vehicles will affect society and government revenue still remain to be answered. Tesla’s Autopilot update is driving us into new territory, but for now, humans can still grab the wheel.

Elsie Bjarnason contributed to this post