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Heads of 2 powerful House committees join anti-encryption crusade
Is encryption really ‘the biggest threat today,’ as one lawmaker claimed?
The heads of two powerful House committees on Sunday joined a growing congressional backlash against encryption, blaming it for the deadly Paris terrorist attacks despite not having any evidence to back up their claims.
“The biggest threat today is the idea that terrorists can communicate in dark space, dark platforms, and we can’t see what they’re saying,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) said on CBS’s Face the Nation.
On CNN’s State of the Union, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said, “The technology they’re using today, and the rules and lessons they’ve learned the last 15 years, they’ve gotten very good at hiding from intelligence services around the globe.”
“[T]hey’ve gotten very good at hiding from intelligence services around the globe.”
Although there is no evidence that encryption played a role in the Paris attacks, McCaul suggested on Face the Nation that “there may be plots under way that we just quite frankly can’t see,” adding, “I think there’s strong indicators that they did” use encryption.
In blaming encryption for the Paris attacks, which killed at least 130 people, the House lawmakers were echoing concerns first voiced by senior U.S. intelligence officials and Senate lawmakers in the days after the killings.
FBI Director James Comey, CIA Director John Brennan, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) have all said that the government needs new powers to peer past the encryption protecting commercial products like Gmail, WhatsApp, and Microsoft Windows. Several of them called for tech companies to add so-called “backdoors” to their encryption.
The new demand for encryption backdoors has reignited a long-running debate about guaranteed government access to secure products. Independent security experts unanimously oppose backdoors for a myriad of technical reasons. They note that there is no way to build a door that only one party can access. The Obama administration recently rejected the idea of trying to mandate backdoors but continues to pressure tech companies to add them.
The government is reportedly asking tech executives to come to Washington to discuss the issue of encryption.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee and a staunch supporter of the surveillance community, on Sunday dismissed the expert consensus that backdoors were dangerous.
“I think with a court order, with good justification, all of that can be prevented,” she said, referring to security concerns. Feinstein also called encryption the “Achilles’ heel” of the Internet.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on the resurgent anti-encryption rhetoric.
Eric Geller is a politics reporter who focuses on cybersecurity, surveillance, encryption, and privacy. A former staff writer at the Daily Dot, Geller joined Politico in June 2016, where he's focused on policymaking at the White House, the Justice Department, the State Department, and the Commerce Department.