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Paris Attacks Raise Encryption as Key Issue to 2016 Elections

How will candidates courting Silicon Valley deal with the encryption vs. privacy question?

Christopher Furlong / Getty

Presidential candidates who travel to Silicon Valley for fundraising may find themselves walking a precarious line between the privacy position of potential donors and calls for greater surveillance in the wake of the Paris attacks.

The weekend’s mass shootings and suicide bombings in France — together with the downing of a Russian airliner and a pair of suicide bombings in Beirut — have renewed calls for technology companies to provide government officials back-door access to encrypted communications on smartphones and messaging apps.

As Re/code noted yesterday, technology giants like Apple, Google and Facebook have pushed back against such measures, arguing that leaving holes in customers’ data encryption, no matter how well intentioned, would make them more vulnerable to hacking and cybercrime without necessarily making them safer.

It’ll be tough for the candidates who’ve been most successful in winning backers in Silicon Valley — particularly Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has returned to the Bay Area three times over the course of her 2016 campaign — to find a middle ground between individual rights and public safety.

How to appeal to privacy advocates while winning voters, who may be feeling vulnerable in the aftermath of the Paris tragedy? After the January attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, two-thirds of the Americans surveyed in a Washington Post-ABC News poll said they would surrender privacy for greater security.

The independent, non-partisan group Crowdpac tracks fundraising by sector. This is the amount each of the candidates for president raised so far through tech sector contributions.
The independent, non-partisan group Crowdpac tracks fundraising by sector. This is the amount each of the candidates for president raised so far through tech sector contributions.

Clinton avoided taking a firm stance when questioned earlier this year by Re/code’s Kara Swisher, who asked about balancing the role of encryption in protecting privacy and a government’s need to protect legitimate security interests.

It is “a classic tough choice,” Clinton said, adding that she didn’t have an easy answer. “I think there are really strong, legitimate arguments on both sides.”

Former Secretary of State Clinton supported the U.S.A. Patriot Act, a 2001 counter-terrorism measure that gave broad surveillance powers to the National Security Agency — a vote, and subsequent reauthorization, that her primary opponent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has criticized.

More recently, Clinton endorsed the U.S.A. Freedom Act, which ended the NSA’s bulk collection of data under the Patriot Act.

The two Republican candidates who’ve been most effective in drumming up support in the Bay Area, Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have been clear about how they come down on this issue — they side with the need for government surveillance.

Online civil liberties advocates such as Chris Calabrese of the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington, D.C., say candidates who defend encryption as vital to America’s security interests are on the side of the angels.

“When we talk about undermining encryption, it’s got a bit of superficial appeal. Everyone wants to do something after an attack. The reality is that this would be a very bad thing from a security point of view,” Calabrese said. “Also, encryption tools are available worldwide. There’s literally nothing that the U.S. could do to keep a terrorist from acquiring an encryption communications technology and using it. So none of the laws would do anything except undermine everyday users’ security.”

For the moment, debate on Capitol Hill has shifted to immigration and whether to more rigorously screen Syrian and Iraqi refugees who want to come to the United States. The House of Representatives plans to vote this week on a measure that would require the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to certify that each potential refugee is not a threat to U.S. security.

“Our nation has always been welcoming,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told Politico Tuesday. “But we cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion. This is a moment where it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

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