Paris Attacks Put Congress ‘On A Collision Course’ With Silicon Valley

Steve Ambrose | Contributor

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris have reignited calls on Capitol Hill to legislate backdoors into America’s secure communication networks.

The Senate is prepared to begin reviewing the use of public encryption, as well as options for installing security “back doors” in communication devices, because of the belief that ISIS used encryption techniques to execute the Paris killings, The Wall Street Journal reported Nov. 17. The hearings have put Congress “on a collision course with Silicon Valley,” according to The Wall Street Journal, because they’ll undoubtedly up the pressure on technology companies to be more compliant with the demands of law enforcement for greater communication access.

“Every time we have one of these attacks, I think it’s appropriate to take a look at what the laws are on the books and be open to considering changing them if they don’t reflect the modern threat,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said to reporters. (RELATED: Thank You For Calling ISIS Customer Service, How May We Help You?)

Chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee Sen. John McCain and Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Richard Burr both said to reporters that their respective committees will be holding hearings on encryption and review the institution of a “back door” policy for devices, which would function like a key that only select users may use to decrypt a message. (RELATED: ISIS Now Spreading Ideology On Dark Web)

Encryption, specifically end-to-end encryption, is a method of securing communication between parties where third parties are prevented from accessing the messages. The data is encrypted on the sender’s device and only the recipient is able to decipher it, thus “end to end.” (RELATED: Iran Cracks Down On Encryption, Arresting Administrators Of Secure Messaging App)

It is a type of communication used by businesses, everyday consumers, intelligence agencies, journalists, as well as terrorists.

Tech companies like Apple and Google currently create devices that allow end-to-end encryption. In addition, a number of app developers also allow encrypted communications like Telegram, WhatsApp, and Signal. The groups have been fairly resistant to calls for encryption changes, in fact, many of them market themselves on encryption. (RELATED: FBI Director: Apple, Google Acting ‘Above The Law’ By Locking Users’ Phones)

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a member of the Intelligence Committee, said to MSNBC Nov. 16 that it is problematic if technology companies “create a product that allows evil monsters to communicate in this way.”

Law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and members of Congress have been consistently requesting that the companies creating these secure methods of communication create a coded “back door” into the device or app. (RELATED: MiniLock Seeks To Make Data Encryption Easy For The Average User)

The “back door” would function like a gatekeeper of sorts. The idea is that an encryption would remain active to protect a user from hackers, but law enforcement (and other similar agencies) would be given a universal key that allows the agency to intercept and decipher the messages.

Burr stated that “[Congress doesn’t] have a responsibility to sell [technology company] products. We have a responsibility to keep America safe … And if it means that people are going to have to change their business models, then so be it.”

Predictably, the response from technology groups has been less than enthusiastic.

The main concern from the tech community is that the “back door” idea is a bad idea. They claim that there is no way to create a back door into encryption that only allows law enforcement to decrypt. If law enforcement can gain access, then a hacker or other malicious actor can gain access. It’s a zero sum game—either the communications are encrypted and shielded from all except the intended recipient or the communications aren’t encrypted.

The companies also stress privacy concerns, which reflect an industry appreciation for the right to be left alone, as well as an appreciation for the fact that privacy now has an impact on the company bottom line.

Being known as “soft” on privacy for the tech industry can lead to unjust allegations of serving as a branch of the government’s intelligence arm. That label could — and has, since the leaks of Edward Snowden — severely impact the company customer base.

The belief now is that with the Paris attacks still fresh on the minds of the public and Congress, the standoff between the tech industry and the government has worn out its welcome and a solution needs to happen immediately.

Morgan Wright, a cybersecurity consultant, told The Hill that there “can be pressure brought when there’s enough impetus, and if it’s not [the Paris killings], I don’t know what it would be.”

Jay Kaplan, the chief executive officer of digital security firm Synack, said that attacks like Paris are immediate game-changers.

“You’re absolutely going to see the conversation be restarted that had ended with the public outcry that privacy is more important [than security],” Kaplan said. “I think events like this cause an instant mentality shift.”

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Tags : apple dianne feinstein google john mccain mitch mcconnell richard burr telegram whatsapp
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