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Top US official tells tech giants to police themselves or face regulation

Washington

JUST days before a parade of tech executives are slated to visit Washington, a top Justice Department official fired off a strong warning: Do better to police your platforms or face government regulation.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Thursday urged tech companies to step up efforts to combat disinformation campaigns and other misuses of their platforms - and allow law enforcement access to encrypted electronic data. Otherwise, he cautioned, there could be consequences.

"The companies now understand that if they do not take it upon themselves to self-regulate, which is essentially the theme of my talk today, that they will face the potential of governmental regulation," Mr Rosenstein said during a symposium on cybercrime organised by the Georgetown University Law Center and the Justice Department's Computer Crime and Intellectual Property section.

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Mr Rosenstein's shot at Silicon Valley behemoths was especially notable just days before the White House is scheduled to host top executives including Google chief executive Sundar Pichai, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella and Qualcomm chief executive Steve Mollenkopf. Mr Pichai is also expected to testify before the House Judiciary Committee.

Tech companies remain in the eye of the political storm in Washington for their response to Russia's campaign to influence the past presidential election or data breaches - and the spread of encryption so strong the companies can't access it. As some in Washington call for a privacy bill or mandate to give investigators access to encrypted data with a warrant, Mr Rosenstein's speech belied an "us vs them" mentality.

"When you hear corporate lawyers complain about law enforcement demands, it's important to keep in mind what is good for a technology company in terms of bottom-line profits is not necessarily good for America. Their interests are not always aligned with yours." He added: "We should not let ideology or dogma stand in the way of constructive academic engagement" to solve the debate over encryption.

Mr Rosenstein said he expected "responsible encryption" from tech companies: "Whatever structures we build, whether physical or virtual, someone should always have the ability to access it in an emergency, but the key does not need to be held by a single entity, and it certainly does not need to be held by the government. It just needs to be available somewhere so that in the event of an emergency with the appropriate standard of proof and an order by an independent court, it's accessible - just like everything else throughout history has been accessible with proper, lawful process." But security pros weren't having it.

Matthew Green, a cryptography expert and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, said that the federal government has not tried to explore new options to solve the encryption standoff that has persisted since the 1990s.

In his speech, Mr Rosenstein sought to enlist help from academics and other professionals to look for ways to address the issue. "I encourage security researchers, technology companies, academics, information security professionals and others in the private sector to keep searching for constructive solutions that will enable us to harness the wonder of new advances without descending into technological anarchy," he said.

Yet Mr Green took issue with the argument that academics have not been engaged enough. WP