WASHINGTON The deadly attacks in Paris are
reigniting a debate over whether U.S. government spies should
have easy access to encrypted messages flowing across the
Intelligence agencies have long argued for so-called
"backdoors" that would enable them to monitor encrypted email
messages, chat applications, phone calls and other types of
electronic communications. But privacy advocates and technology
companies staunchly oppose such backdoors and have successfully
beaten back all legislative efforts to require them.
A U.S. security official said there is no evidence yet
demonstrating that the Paris attackers used a particular method
for communicating, or whether any technology they used was
encrypted in a particular way. The Islamic State has publicly
claimed responsibility for the killings.
Still, several lawmakers and U.S. intelligence officials
seized on the attacks to lobby for backdoors.
"Silicon Valley has to look at its products because if you
create a product that allows evil monsters to communicate in
this way, to behead children, to strike innocents -- whether
it's at a game in a stadium, in a small restaurant in Paris,
take down an airliner -- that's a big problem," U.S. Senator
Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence
Committee, told MSNBC on Monday.
Michael Morell, former deputy director of the Central
Intelligence Agency, said discussions about encryption have been
largely shaped by former National Security Agency contractor
Edward Snowden and his privacy-minded allies, but that a new
chapter would "be defined by what happened in Paris."
Snowden leaked top secret information about NSA surveillance
activities in 2013 and is now living in Russia, which granted
him temporary asylum.
Just last month, the White House appeared to back down from
its push for backdoors. A months-long lobbying push by
intelligence and law enforcement agencies ultimately withered in
the face of opposition from technology companies and privacy
advocates, who argue that backdoors weaken the overall security
of the Internet and do little to help catch bad actors.
The retreat may be temporary, with even some U.S.
intelligence officials privately conceding before the Paris
assault that the political environment would be more favorable
in the event of a terrorist attack.
An August email from Robert Litt, the top lawyer for the
U.S. intelligence community, obtained by the Washington Post,
noted that momentum on the issue "could turn in the event of a
terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can
be shown to have hindered law enforcement."
And current CIA Director John Brennan said on Monday that
unauthorized disclosures and "a lot of hand wringing over the
government's role" has made finding terrorists much more
Brennan also said at a security forum that the enemy has
become smarter. "I must say that there has been a significant
increase in the operational security of a number of these
operatives and terrorist networks as they have gone to school on
what it is that they need to do in order to keep their
activities concealed from the authorities," he said.
SWEEPING NEW LAW
Nonetheless, legislation requiring encryption backdoors is
still considered unlikely to gain traction in Congress.
"Post-Snowden, society has already spoken," a Republican
familiar with congressional deliberations on the matter said on
Friday's carnage, which left at least 129 dead and hundreds
more wounded, came just months after France passed a sweeping
surveillance law in the wake of the assault on the satirical
weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo and other attacks in January. It
also happened as the United Kingdom's government is proposing
its own aggressive surveillance bill.
The U.S. is also just weeks away from terminating its spy
program that collects domestic phone metadata in bulk.
Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush
both argued the Paris attacks show the need for the expiring
program. Presidential reviews of the program have found it did
not lead to any clear counter-terrorism breakthroughs.
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball and Susan Heavey.)