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Here Are the Politicians Pushing Silicon Valley to Loosen Encryption and Fight ISIS on Social Media

Political pressure has increased in the wake of the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.


Tensions between Silicon Valley and the federal government over industry encryption of user data aren’t new. But after last month’s terror attack in Paris and the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, the fight between the two is getting uglier.

A number of Democratic and Republican politicians, including President Obama and the presidential front-runners of both parties, are trying to turn up the heat on tech companies. All of them demand that tech firms help the government fight ISIS on social media, and most are pushing Facebook, Google and the like to build backdoors for government agencies to access encrypted user data.

The calls for backdoors revive a political fight that President Obama ducked in October, when he decided not to pursue legislation that would have required tech companies to allow them.

Security experts, Re/code Editor-at-Large Walt Mossberg and virtually the whole industry say such “government-only” backdoors will always be vulnerable to hackers, and that enabling the surveillance state is probably not a good thing.

Defense and intelligence agency officials say they need to examine encrypted information to prevent attacks like those in Paris and San Bernardino, though encrypted communications were not likely used in either attack.

Though the tech industry has, after some arm-twisting, begun to ramp up its public-facing efforts to target online extremism, it has stayed quiet on the issue of encryption. For example, Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt declined to address the topic in a recent op-ed for the New York Times. This is likely because Silicon Valley won’t cave on the issue, and is instead opting to wait out the political backlash.

But that backlash hasn’t relented yet, and it doesn’t look to be letting up anytime soon; Gallup says that Americans believe terrorism is the No. 1 problem facing the country, so you can reasonably expect that politicians won’t stay quiet about encryption and online extremism. Here’s a quick rundown of the political figures doing the talking, and what they’re saying:

President Obama

The Obama administration wants social media services to monitor and shut down the online spaces used by extremists to disseminate propaganda and organize attacks. President Obama himself has said as much, and senior officials say the White House is renewing a push for social media companies to further collaborate with the government. The primary challenge here for Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and others is the sheer volume of the content they’re being told to police more strongly.

And, of course, President Obama and some of his top security appointees are asking Silicon Valley to let the government read encrypted messages. The directors of the FBI and the CIA have reiterated prior calls to build backdoors, as has the president, even though he abandoned legislative efforts toward that end back in October. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Homeland Security would begin examining the social media profiles of visa applicants.

Hillary Clinton

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton is attempting to strike a balance between the interests of Silicon Valley, whose financial support she’s courting to finance her campaign, and broader national security interests. She has called for greater cooperation on encryption from the tech community, and more help in managing threats on social media.

“We need Silicon Valley not to view government as its adversary,” Clinton said in a speech last month at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “We need 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.”

Donald Trump

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, in remarks that betray a certain lack of technological savvy, proposed calling on Microsoft founder Bill Gates for help in “closing the Internet up in some way.”

“We’re losing a lot of people because of the Internet,” Trump said at a rally at the USS Yorktown in South Carolina. “We have to see Bill Gates and a lot of different people that really understand what’s happening. We have to talk to them about, maybe in certain areas, closing that Internet up in some way. Somebody will say, ‘Oh, freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people.”

Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush says technology companies have created a dangerous situation by encrypting user data.

“If you create encryption, it makes it harder for the American government to do its job — while protecting civil liberties — to make sure that evildoers aren’t in our midst,” the former Florida governor said during a campaign stop earlier this summer in South Carolina.

Lindsey Graham

Republican challenger Sen. Lindsey Graham firmly backed calls by FBI Director James Comey for backdoors that would give law enforcement access to encrypted messages. The South Carolina legislator said business-motivated technology companies — by inference, Apple and Google — that bolster privacy protections on consumer devices need to upend their strategy.

“Here’s my message to Silicon Valley,” Graham said in remarks last week to Fox News. “Change your business model tomorrow.”

Carly Fiorina

Former Hewlett Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina has adopted a decidedly pro law-and-order stance when it comes to the matter of encryption. During the first GOP debate, she called on Google and Apple to “tear down cyberwalls.”

“I do not believe we need to wholesale destroy every American’s privacy, but, yes, there is more collaboration required between private sector companies and the public sector,” Fiorina said.

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