Don Mathis, Foreign Policy

Terrorism Prompts Governments, Tech Giants to Battle Over Encryption

The latest wave of terror attacks across the globe once again stoked the fire that is the encryption debate.

In the United States and U.K., the debate has prompted law and policy makers to explore where encryption technology stops helping its users and instead potentially hurts the general public. This new level of concern has both the public and private sector concerned about where the line is drawn–if one will be established at all.

Apps like Signal, Wickr and Telegram are on the front lines of the debate. These and other similar apps have been used or alleged to have been used, for communication amongst terrorists and the terror cells they coordinate with. In the case of Telegram, the app has not had credible evidence to say groups like the so-called Islamic State used Telegram to encrypt its messaging. However, it is clear that the app and others were used by IS to announce its involvement in the attacks in Paris and the downing of the Russian airliner in Egypt.

In the U.S., it’s not just politicians looking to revise encryption standards. FBI Director James B. Comey recently voiced his concern. In light of evidence that the terrorist behind the Garland, Texas Muhammed drawing contest had more than 100 encrypted text messages, Comey believes the government and its agencies should have a way to circumvent the current walls for the sake of public safety. “We have no idea what he said because those messages were encrypted,” Mr. Comey said. “And to this day, I can’t tell you what he said with that terrorist 109 times the morning of that attack. That is a big problem. We have to grapple with it.”

Despite running into a wall from the Obama administration earlier this year on the subject, Comey and others believe the latest wave of violence should allow for the topic to be discussed again.

In the U.K., the Investigatory Powers Bill is proving quite divisive over similar issues. In short, the IPB would require web and phone companies to store users’ website records, allows law and security services to hack into phones and computers, places obligations on companies to assist the organizations in skirting encryption and several other key points you can see here. The bill would stop short at banning encryption, much like the efforts in the States. Instead, the move would curtail the strength of encryption so it can be broken when needed. This means Apple, Google and others in the sphere won’t be able to offer advanced encryption to its users. In a not so surprising response, Silicon Valley and other tech giants are pushing back.

While politicians and authorities that include Comey and Prime Minister David Cameron believe companies shouldn’t be allowed to create a secure space where terrorists and other criminals could use end-to-end encryption as a “safe space” from authorities, tech giants stand in opposition. Apple CEO Tim Cook is one adamant detractor. Last year he wrote that “I want to be absolutely clear that we have never worked with any government agency from another country to create a backdoor in any of our products and services. We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will.”

From an outside perspective, this issue proves its level of divisiveness. While no one wants to see terrorists have a safe space to operate and plan its next atrocity, fears of government and law enforcement overreach do have credibility as well. With CISA and other bills moving through the U.S., both nations represent the front line of the latest privacy battle pitting the government against technology.

It remains to be seen what will eventually determine the line, but it is a subject that certainly impacts all of us regardless.

from Don Mathis: Cybersecurity & Tech


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