Jeb Bush says backdoor demands are ‘legitimate’ for national-security threats

Jeb Bush on Tuesday dodged a question about whether he would demand that tech companies guarantee the government access to their encrypted products.

During a Q&A at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the Republican presidential candidate and former Florida governor declined to definitively say whether or not he supported such guaranteed-access schemes, which critics call “backdoors.”

“It’s legitimate to make that claim that we should, when there’s a national-security threat… have the ability to go through the backdoor and determine if that threat is real,” Bush said. “But you could also end up shifting people’s platforms overseas. You could end up with noncompliant technological entities that aren’t U.S.-based that could hurt our economy and also challenge us and make it less possible for us to create a more secure America.”

Apple and other technology companies have recently been adding strong encryption—a term for encryption that even they cannot break—to their products, ushering in a new phase of a long-running battle between technologists and the law-enforcement community.

Technical experts say that requiring them to add backdoors to their encryption would severely undermine consumer privacy and security. But some law-enforcement and intelligence officials, like FBI Director James Comey and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, have become concerned that terrorists are “going dark” by using encryption to hide their plotting.

Comey, Vance, and their allies have condemned tech companies that refuse to backdoor their encryption, warning that they will be responsible if terrorists who encrypt their planning chatter eventually attack the United States.

Bush acknowledged a trust deficit between the U.S. government and executives in libertarian Silicon Valley, but instead of blaming it on backdoor advocates like Comey, he pointed to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked a trove of documents about far-reaching Western surveillance programs to journalists in 2013 and 2014.

Snowden’s disclosures “created a lack of trust with our European allies and with the technology companies that now feel pressure overseas as they try to continue to do business,” Bush said.

Ross Schulman, the senior policy counsel at New America’s Open Technology Institute, said that Bush was “shooting the messenger” for blaming Snowden.

“Any strain that exists,” he said in an email, “should be placed at the feet of the parts of the government intent on subverting the networks and systems of American companies.”

Snowden recently mocked similar comments by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) on Twitter.

The next president, Bush added, would need to “rebuild trust” with international partners and U.S. firms before considering backdoor mandates.

“We can’t just say, ‘Well, we’re going to pass a law that’s going to require this,'” he said, “because we actually may have a worse outcome if we do that, if we’re not careful.”

Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) are planning legislation that would address encryption in some manner, although it has reportedly been delayed.

Photo via Michael Vadon/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman 

Eric Geller

Eric Geller

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.