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In 2015, Terrorist Attacks Intensified the Debate Over Encryption

Expect a committee to be formed to find a solution to government calls for access to encrypted communications.

David Ramos/Getty Images

The terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., changed the nature of the encryption debate.

Law enforcement has been criticizing Apple and Google for more than a year, warning that the decision to encrypt smartphones would hinder criminal investigations by blocking access to the data stored on these devices. The change followed disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden who revealed the extent of the U.S. government’s programs to spy on its citizens. But that knowledge didn’t deter FBI Director James Comey, who argued such digital tools would be a boon to child pornographers, kidnappers and other bad actors looking to cover their tracks.

The back-to-back mass murders altered the conversation in Washington, D.C., and beyond.

Here’s What Happened

The Nov. 13 terror attacks in the French capital reframed the debate over private encryption as one that’s central to national security. Militants carried out coordinated attacks on a concert hall, sports arena and cafes, leaving 129 people dead. Investigations subsequently revealed the suspected mastermind used encryption technology to conceal his activities.

Just weeks later, a husband and wife shot and killed 14 people at a holiday party in San Bernardino. Investigators said the couple had used private, direct messages to express their commitment to radical Islam and martyrdom in the years prior to the Dec. 2 attacks.

Comey seized on the revelations to argue, once again, that the intelligence community needs access to encrypted data to keep the nation safe. Similar calls went out in the U.K., where the British government is attempting to ban strong encryption through the Investigatory Powers Bill.

How It Worked Out

Candidates across the political spectrum reacted with calls to find a solution.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., vowed to file legislation to require companies to decrypt data under a court order — a bill she’s working on with Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C. Burr turned to the Wall Street Journal to lay out his argument for updating the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which was enacted in 1994 — before the iPhone existed.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham used the megaphone of Fox News to call on Silicon Valley companies that brought encryption to smartphones to “change your business model tomorrow.”

Discussions about encryption and national security have become a central issue in the 2016 presidential race, with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton calling on the tech community and government to work together on a “Manhattan-like project” to break encrypted terrorist communications.

Republican presidential hopefuls, including Ohio Gov. John Kasich, tend to support the notion of forcing tech companies to decrypt data, though former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina countered that such strong-arm tactics aren’t necessary. “They do not need to be forced,” Fiorina said during the recent Republican candidates debate. “They need to be asked.”

Here’s What’s Next

Despite all the rhetoric — remember, it’s easier to pick on the nerds in Silicon Valley than take on the gun lobby after a mass shooting — don’t expect action out of Washington, D.C., anytime soon.

Let’s begin with the obvious. It’s not at all clear that a middle-ground solution exists that would allow government investigators back-door access to communications without weakening security. (The Intercept reported that some have lampooned Comey’s technological naivete on this matter, calling this suggestion a “magic pony.”) Nor would it be effective for the U.S. government to demand Apple or Google hand over the encryption keys when scores of products, such as the Telegram messaging app, fall outside its legislative reach.

Expect the issue to be studied to death.

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid proposed legislation that calls on the National Academy of Sciences to study encryption’s security implications “to make sure that our national security needs and technology policies are not working at cross-purposes.” Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, a member of the Senate’s Committee on Intelligence, joined with Texas Republican Michael McCaul, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, to propose the formation of a committee to study the problem in an op-ed appearing in the Washington Post.

“Americans have heard a lot of bluster and not enough substance. Complex issues have been reduced to simple talking points and vague demands,” the legislators wrote. “We want that to change, which is why we are seeking the brightest minds from the technology sector, the legal world, computer science and cryptography, academia, civil liberties and privacy advocates, law enforcement and intelligence to collaboratively explore the intersection of technology and security.”

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