Hillary Clinton has joined a growing number of politicians using the Paris attacks earlier this month to argue for a weaker encryption.
Speaking at Council on Foreign Relations in Washington Thursday, the presidential candidate talked extensively about Islamic State, the recent attacks in Paris and what the US government could do in response.
Part of that response was in tackling the technological means by which the Islamic State communicates, she said. "[One] challenge is how to strike the right balance of protecting privacy and security. Encryption of mobile communications presents a particularly tough problem.
"We should take the concerns of law enforcement and counterterrorism professionals seriously. They have warned that impenetrable encryption may prevent them from accessing terrorist communications and preventing a future attack. On the other hand, we know there are legitimate concerns about government intrusion, network security, and creating new vulnerabilities that bad actors can and would exploit."
Part of the problem, according to Clinton, is a tech sector that has become resistant to government efforts to pressure it into introducing backdoors into its products. Said Clinton: "So we need Silicon Valley not to view government as its adversary. We need to challenge our best minds in the private sector to work with our best minds in the public sector to develop solutions that will both keep us safe and protect our privacy. Now is the time to solve this problem, not after the next attack."
Clinton's thoughts were echoed in an editorial Friday by the Washington Post in which the paper also argued that tech companies needed to work with government to find solutions to encrypted communication.
The paper argued: "The technology giants and their allies have resolutely insisted that giving law enforcement any kind of extraordinary access would be disastrous, weakening encryption for all. When we suggested earlier that there must be some kind of technical compromise, we were told bluntly: No compromise exists, period."
It then seemingly questions that statement: "We understand the benefit of encryption, including for citizens living under authoritarian regimes. But we also do not underestimate the risks to the public that terrorists and other criminals may pose. It seems obvious that, if there is a terrible attack in the United States, privacy advocates and tech companies instantly will lose this argument. We don’t have a solution, but it would be in everyone’s interest to keep looking for one, before the next catastrophe."
This approach of acknowledging the fundamental technical problem of providing a backdoor to encryption while at the same time insisting that a way be found to work around it has been called "magical thinking" and is something that the top levels of the US government has explicitly referenced, including an FTC Commissioner who is for encryption and the FBI's top lawyer, who still wants a workaround.
Meanwhile on Thursday, the tech industry again reiterated its refusal to be pressured into undermining their encryption services by putting out a statement through the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), which bills itself as the "global voice of the tech sector" and contains such giants as Apple, Google, and Microsoft, put out a statement Thursday that said in part: "Weakening security with the aim of advancing security simply does not make sense."
What’s happened this week?
The debate over encryption was thought to be largely over after President Obama said last month that his administration would not be seeking new legislation on the issue. That decision followed a leak of a review of the topic by his National Security Council.
But the Paris attack have renewed calls for the security measure, even though there remains no evidence as yet that the attackers used encryption to communicate. The Paris police found unencrypted text messages concerned the attack, and a public Facebook post from one of the attackers has also been uncovered. Early reports that the attackers used PlayStation 4s to communicate surreptitiously have also been dismissed.
Regardless, senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who chairs the US Senate Intelligence Committee, went on TV and said: "If you create a product that allows evil monsters to communicate in this way, to behead children, to strike innocents – whether it's at a game in a stadium, in a small restaurant in Paris, take down an airline – that is a big problem."
She was joined by Manhattan's district attorney Cyrus Vance who wrote an opinion column in the New York Times that argued that "encryption blocks justice."
And senator John McCain (R-AZ) also said he would be proposing new laws on the issue, noting: "In the Senate Armed Services we're going to have hearings on it and we're going to have legislation."
Pushing back on the other side at the tech companies including Google - which has encrypted of its data after it was revealed by Edward Snowden that the NSA was taping the search giant's own data centers - and Apple, which has implemented an encryption system that gives the user control over the encryption keys. ®